What “impossible” meant to Feynman

Today in Nautilus:
“Impossible!” Feynman finally said. I nodded in agreement and smiled, because I knew that to be one of his greatest compliments.He looked back up at the wall, shaking his head. “Absolutely impossible! That is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.”

From The Second Kind of Impossible: The Extraordinary Quest for a New Form of Matter by Paul Steinhardt. Copyright © 2017 by Paul J. Steinhardt. This is a fascinating book. Paul Steinhardt was a fellow fellow when I was at the Radcliffe Institute. I heard his story then. Here is a summary of his book from the publisher’s website.

“When leading Princeton physicist Paul Steinhardt began working in the 1980s, scientists thought they knew all the conceivable forms of matter. The Second Kind of Impossible is the story of Steinhardt’s thirty-five-year-long quest to challenge conventional wisdom. It begins with a curious geometric pattern that inspires two theoretical physicists to propose a radically new type of matter—one that raises the possibility of new materials with never before seen properties, but that violates laws set in stone for centuries. Steinhardt dubs this new form of matter “quasicrystal.” The rest of the scientific community calls it simply impossible.

The Second Kind of Impossible captures Steinhardt’s scientific odyssey as it unfolds over decades, first to prove viability, and then to pursue his wildest conjecture—that nature made quasicrystals long before humans discovered them. Along the way, his team encounters clandestine collectors, corrupt scientists, secret diaries, international smugglers, and KGB agents. Their quest culminates in a daring expedition to a distant corner of the Earth, in pursuit of tiny fragments of a meteorite forged at the birth of the solar system.”

George Hughes, Buridanus, and the Presumption of Intelligence

My beloved teacher, the late George Edward Hughes from Victoria University of Wellington, was not only an expert on Modal Logic, he was also a scholar of Buridanus. He loved to talk about how he approached the works of Buridanus. He explained to me once that when he didn’t understand a passage in Buridanus, he reminded himself that Buridanus was a very intelligent man. He would then go back to the passage and reread it. Often, a coherent story emerged. As editors, reviewers, teachers, let’s adopt this way of reading dead authors when evaluating the papers of those who are still alive. Let’s stick to a Presumption of Intelligence. We often read those papers too quickly. We sometimes have to. When we just can’t figure out what a writer is up to, let’s go back and apply the Presumption of Intelligence. The story might fall into place.

Angelika Fest 2018 with Pictures and Videos

The site for the Angelika Fest 2018 has now been updated with pictures and videos. Also, a big thank you to everyone who contributed to the designated cause of the Fest Fund, the Sophie O’Brian Scholarship Fund. It’s helping – even just a tiny bit – with college access for the poorest residents of the state where I have lived for most of my adult life.

Meredith Landman on Variables in Natural Language

Ever since Quine’s “On What There Is”, discussions of the types of variables in natural languages have occupied a special place in semantics. According to Quine, “to be assumed as an entity is, purely and simply, to be reckoned as the value of a variable.” After eleven years in the archives, Meredith Landman’s landmark 2006 dissertation on Variables in Natural Language has now been made publicly available on ScholarWorks. Landman’s dissertation argues for severe type restrictions for object language variables in natural languages, targeting pro-forms of various kinds, elided constituents, and traces of movement.

In his 1984 UMass dissertation Gennaro Chierchia had already proposed the ‘No Functor Anaphora Constraint’, which says that ‘functors’ (e.g. determiners, connectives, prepositions) do not enter anaphoric relationships. Landman’s dissertation goes further in arguing for a constraint that affects all object language variables and also rules out properties as possible values for them. Her ‘No Higher Types Variable Constraint’ (NHTV) restricts object language variables to the semantic type e of individuals.

Landman explores the consequences of the NHTV for the values of overt pro-forms like such or do so, as well as for gaps of A’-movement and for NP and VP ellipsis. Since the NHTV bars higher type variables in all of those cases, languages might have to use strategies like overt pro-forms or partial or total syntactic reconstruction of the antecedent to interpret certain types of movement gaps and elided constituents. The NHTV thus validates previous work arguing for syntactic reconstruction and against the use of higher-type variables (e.g. Romero 1998 and Fox 1999, 2000), as well as work arguing for treating ellipsis as involving deletion of syntactic structure.

The topic of the type of traces has most recently been taken up again in Ethan Poole’s 2017 UMass dissertation, which contributes important new evidence confirming that the type of traces should indeed be restricted to type e.

(This post was crafted in collaboration with Meredith Landman, who also provided the pictures).

25 years of Natural Language Semantics

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Natural Language Semantics. Irene Heim and I have been the editors since then. We still meet – at a table, not on a screen – to discuss the papers that have been submitted. Natural Language Semantics was the brain child of Martin Scrivener, the Linguistics editor of what was then Kluwer Academic Publishers. Martin thought that the time had come for a journal to bring together syntactic work in the generative tradition and formal semantics work in the tradition of David Lewis and Richard Montague. From the very start, the journal attracted work on cross-linguistic semantics and the syntax-semantics interface. Early highlights include Mats Rooth’s and Roger Schwarzschild’s papers on focus interpretation and givenness, Veneeta Dayal’s paper on scope marking, Sigrid Beck’s paper on what is now called the “Beck Effect”, Lisa Matthewson’s seminal papers on wide-scope indefinites and on cross-linguistic variation in the expression of quantification, Polly Jacobson’s paper on paycheck pronouns, Lisa Green’s paper on aspectual “be” in African American English, Gennaro Chierchia’s and Sandra Chung’s papers on reference to kinds across languages, Dorit Abusch’s paper on the de re interpretation of the present tense, Mona Singh’s paper on non-culminating accomplishments, and Jo-Wang Lin’s paper on distributivity in Chinese, among many others. All papers are free for anyone to read, share, and annotate.

How we distinguish fact and fiction

From Science News, August 10, 2017: “More than 300 years ago, the philosopher René Descartes asked a disturbing question: If our senses can’t always be trusted, how can we separate illusion from reality? We’re able to do so, a new study suggests, because our brain keeps tabs on reality by constantly questioning its own past expectations and beliefs. Hallucinations occur when this internal fact-checking fails, a finding that could point toward better treatments for schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.”

How do natural languages distinguish between fact and fiction? They don’t really. But they provide many tools for reality checking. I probed into this topic in my 2015 contribution to the Rome Science Festival. Here is the abstract for the talk: “Languages do not care all that much about the difference between fact and fiction. Stories tend to be told as if they were reports of known fact. You may have read somewhere that Mr. Palomar was standing on the shore, looking at a wave. Was it in a newspaper? Well, no, it’s from a story by Calvino. [Il signor Palomar è in piedi sulla riva e guarda un’onda.] Calvino’s story doesn’t tell you that it is a piece of fiction. There are no grammatical categories to indicate the merely fictional. There are no fictional declensions or conjugations in natural languages. Every sentence in every language describes a wide range of possibilities. When Calvino writes that Mr. Palomar was standing on the shore, he evokes a set of possibilities. When Wikipedia tells me that Calvino was born in Cuba, it, too, evokes a set of possibilities. But it does more. It also implies that the world we live in is one of them. When it comes to how to approach reality, languages do care. They have countless ways to modulate, fine-tune, and calibrate claims about reality. In a quarter of all the world’s languages, you can’t say that a man was standing on the shore without mentioning your evidence. Was it just hearsay? Did you see it with your own eyes? Did you infer the man’s presence from the footprints in the sand? In those languages, grammar forces speakers to be upfront about their evidence, just as Italian or English forces us to use tenses to locate events in time. Once the evidence is on the table, we may want to say something about the strength of the conclusions we can draw from it. Might there be an iguana in the reptile house? Is it certain? Or is there only a slim chance? Is there a better chance for there to be an iguana than a python? What means do languages have to indicate the strength of a conclusion from a piece of evidence? How do they compare possibilities? How do they talk about degrees of possibilities? Most importantly, how does grammar dip into this jungle of concepts and map them onto hierarchically structured sequences of words that we can use to reason about uncertainty in science and in daily life?”

New papers on disjunction and embedded questions

The latest issue of Natural Language Semantics has two Open Access articles. Ivano Ciardelli and Floris Roelofsen’s paper is about so-called Hurford disjunctions, that is, disjunctions where one disjunct entails another. More generally, it is a contribution to Alternative and Inquisitive Semantics, where disjunction is assumed to generate multiple propositional alternatives. Alexandre Cremers and Emmanuel Chemla’s article is an experimental study on questions embedded under emotive factives. Emotive-factive predicates like surprise or be happy present empirical and theoretical puzzles for embedded questions: Although they embed wh-questions, they can’t seem to embed whether-questions, for example.

Maryam Mirzakhani and the universe of all possible billiard tables

Maryam Mirzakhani has died today. She was 40 years old. From Stanford News: “A self-professed “slow” mathematician, Mirzakhani’s colleagues describe her as ambitious, resolute and fearless in the face of problems others would not, or could not, tackle. She denied herself the easy path, choosing instead to tackle thornier issues. Her preferred method of working on a problem was to doodle on large sheets of white paper, scribbling formulas on the periphery of her drawings. Her young daughter described her mother at work as “painting.” “You have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math,” she told one reporter. In another interview, she said of her process: “I don’t have any particular recipe [for developing new proofs] … It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.”

In her honor, I am reposting a 2014 post from this blog. Sources: Wikepedia. Article on Maryam Mirzakhani in the Guardian. Article and video in Quanta Magazine.

Maryam_MirzakhaniJordan Ellenberg‘s popular explanation of what earned Mirzakhani the Fields Medal in 2014: “… [Her] work expertly blends dynamics with geometry. Among other things, she studies billiards. But now, in a move very characteristic of modern mathematics, it gets kind of meta: She considers not just one billiard table, but the universe of all possible billiard tables. And the kind of dynamics she studies doesn’t directly concern the motion of the billiards on the table, but instead a transformation of the billiard table itself, which is changing its shape in a rule-governed way; if you like, the table itself moves like a strange planet around the universe of all possible tables … This isn’t the kind of thing you do to win at pool, but it’s the kind of thing you do to win a Fields Medal. And it’s what you need to do in order to expose the dynamics at the heart of geometry; for there’s no question that they’re there.”

One of 10 people who mattered this year in science: Nature, volume 516, issue 7531, 17 December 2014. 2017 obituary in the New Yorker.

Investigating meaning in the Kiowa Language

Andrew McKenzie (University of Kansas) has been awarded a 3-year NSF (National Science Foundation) grant for “Investigations in the Semantics of Kiowa, a Native American Language of Oklahoma.” The grant description explains how research in semantics can have a big impact on Native American communities. Andrew McKenzie is a linguist specializing in formal semantics and linguistic fieldwork, with a focus on Native American languages, especially Kiowa.

Photo: Marianne McKenzie

From the grant description published by the NSF: “Led by a linguist who is also a tribal member, this project will conduct an in-depth investigation into Kiowa semantics. Semantics forms a crucial component of language, but linguists have not thoroughly documented any language’s semantics with depth and precision, because the theoretical framework to do so was only recently developed. This project will apply this framework of language documentation, in order to uncover the semantics of phenomena crucial to the Kiowa language. The investigators will elicit language judgments from native speakers of the language, which can tease apart subtle aspects of meaning that are often impossible for speakers to define with words. The project will also record and examine new texts that document naturalistic language use, especially in cultural domains under-represented by currently available Kiowa texts. Kiowa grammar includes multiple areas of interest to formal semantics, such as evidentiality, modality, incorporation, quantification, and degree, all of which are also important areas for learners to acquire. This project will result in a reference grammar and teaching materials that will greatly aid these programs by covering the areas in semantics that remain poorly understood by teachers and researchers. This reference grammar will also serve as a manual for researchers of other Native American languages, especially those who are not trained in this research framework. This study will offer new insight for researchers on dozens of phenomena that occur in many languages besides Kiowa. In doing so, it will re-emphasize the longstanding contribution of Native American languages to linguistics, a scientific understanding of what is possible in human language, and thus a deeper understanding of what is possible in the human mind.”

Not all languages are equal

The 2017 Report on America’s Languages by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is silent about non-standard varieties of American English, in particular African American English (AAE). Also, sign languages are only mentioned very briefly. There is no discussion of American Sign Language (ASL) in the body of the report apart from an initial statement (on p.1), which affirms that ASL is a language. The demonstration that sign languages (like ASL) and non-standard vernaculars (like AAE) are legitimate and fully systematic languages might be among the most important achievements of modern linguistics. 

The report was written as a response to questions by a bipartisan group of members of Congress: “How does language learning influence economic growth, cultural diplomacy, the productivity of future generations, and the fulfillment of all Americans? What actions should the nation take to ensure excellence in all languages as well as international education and research, including how we may more effectively use current resources to advance language attainment?”

The way the report is organized suggests that different members of the team of authors responsible for this report might have had different ideas about what their congressional charge was. Parts of the report suggest that this is a report about foreign language teaching in the US, in particular the teaching of big ‘world’ languages like Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Hindi, etc. That’s not what the title of the report suggests, though, or the attention given to the preservation and revitalization of Native American languages and heritage languages. If this is a report about America’s languages, then AAE or ASL cannot be excluded.

One of the key findings of the report is that “the United States needs more people to speak languages other than English in order to provide social and legal services for a changing population.” Recent work by Sharese King and John Rickford on the testimony of Rachel Jeantel made clear that knowledge of AAE may also be needed to provide adequate social and legal services. Another key finding of the report is that mastery of a second language might have a variety of cognitive benefits. Here, too, it would be important to recognize that a speaker of both African American English and Standard American English might be as bilingual as someone who masters both Dutch and German.