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.”
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).
Helen Vendler: The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. Essays on Poets and Poetry. Harvard University Press. 2015. Review in today’s Times Higher Education.
“My first puzzle as an adolescent was how could one know, if one had never seen a ballet before, that one dancer just hadn’t done a certain movement adequately? How could one perceive that something was wrong in the phrasing of a musical moment, if one had never heard that aria before? The presence of an invisible contour of the perfect inhabiting the mind and testing all performances against itself was amazing to me.” Helen Vendler
“In the end, Vendler majored in chemistry, and then won a Fulbright scholarship to study mathematics in Belgium. While there, she obtained permission to study English literature instead […]. After an unsuccessful application to Harvard for graduate study, she prepared for a second attempt by taking six courses in English a term at Boston University, and was finally admitted to Harvard’s PhD programme. When she arrived to register, the chairman of the department told her, “You know we don’t want you here, Miss Hennessy: we don’t want any women here.” She was shaken, but continued.” Elizabeth Greene, from the review.
Edited by Ryan Bochnak and Lisa Matthewson. Website with table of content.
“This volume discusses methodological issues in conducting elicitation on semantic topics in a fieldwork situation. In twelve chapters discussing 11 language families from four continents, authors draw on their own fieldwork experience, pairing explicit methodological proposals with concrete examples of their use in the field. Several chapters cover issues specific to semantic topics such as modality, comparison, tense and aspect, and definiteness, while others focus on elicitation techniques more generally, addressing methodological issues such as the creation of elicitation plans, the choice of language in which to conduct elicitation, and the status of translation tasks. Together, the chapters of this volume demonstrate that elicitation on semantic topics, when conducted following sound methodologies, can and does produce reliable results.”
Gregory Hickok: The myth of mirror neurons. The real neuroscience of communication and cognition. W. W. Norton 2014.
From publisher’s website: “In The Myth of Mirror Neurons, neuroscientist Gregory Hickok reexamines the mirror neuron story and finds that it is built on a tenuous foundation—a pair of codependent assumptions about mirror neuron activity and human understanding. Drawing on a broad range of observations from work on animal behavior, modern neuroimaging, neurological disorders, and more, Hickok argues that the foundational assumptions fall flat in light of the facts.”
Review by Patricia Smith Churchland in Nature 511, 532–533 (31 July 2014): “Hickok’s critique deserves to be widely discussed, especially because many scientists have bought into the mirror-neuron theory of action understanding, perhaps because they lack the time or inclination to peer into its workings themselves. Hickok performs a valuable service by laying out the pros and cons clearly and fairly. He ends by agreeing that although mirror neurons may well have a role in explaining communication and empathy, many other neural networks with complex responses are undoubtedly involved. Those networks and their roles are still to be clarified.”