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.”

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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).

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What’s true of bones is also true of human language

what-is-true-for-bones-01_2Source: Spectrum.

“The inference of a biological trait’s “purpose” or “function” from its surface form is always rife with difficulties. [Richard] Lewontin’s remarks in The Triple Helix (2001) illustrate how difficult it can be to assign a unique function to an organ or to a trait even in the case of what at first seems like a far simpler situation: bones do not have a single, unambiguous “function.” While it is true that bones support the body, allowing us to stand up and walk, they are also a storehouse for calcium and bone marrow for producing new red blood cells, so they are in a sense part of the circulatory system. What is true for bones is also true for human language.” From Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky: Why Only Us: Language and Evolution.  MIT Press, 2016. 

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The Oxford Handbook of Information Structure

fery-ishiharaThe Oxford Handbook of Information Structure (edited by Caroline Féry and Shinichiro Ishihara) will come out in the US on September 28. It has been available in the UK and online since last Spring. This book is an editorial masterpiece that brings clarity into an area that can be very confusing at times. The editors performed a miracle in getting the authors of individual articles to converge on a unified theoretical perspective while still documenting all major current approaches to information structure.

Another invaluable resource on information structure has just come out in the US: Daniel Büring’s survey of Intonation and Meaning. The book gives a state-of-the art introduction to the discourse-related notions of focus and givenness and their impact on prosodic structure. It also has a chapter on the meaning of tones.

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Handbook of African American Language

The Oxford Handbook of African American Language. Edited by Sonja Lanehart. Oxford University Press. 2015.

From the Publisher’s description: “The goal of The Oxford Handbook of African American Language is to provide readers with a wide range of analyses of both traditional and contemporary work on language use in African American communities in a broad collective. The Handbook offers a survey of language and its uses in African American communities from a wide range of contexts organized into seven sections: Origins and Historical Perspectives; Lects and Variation; Structure and Description; Child Language Acquisition and Development; Education; Language in Society; and Language and Identity. It is a handbook of research on African American Language (AAL) and, as such, provides a variety of scholarly perspectives that may not align with each other — as is indicative of most scholarly research. The chapters in this book “interact” with one another as contributors frequently refer the reader to further elaboration on and references to related issues and connect their own research to related topics in other chapters within their own sections and the handbook more generally to create dialogue about AAL, thus affirming the need for collaborative thinking about the issues in AAL research.” A selection of chapters: 

Syntax and Semantics: Lisa J. Green and Walter Sistrunk.

The Systematic Marking of Tense, Modality and Aspect in African American Language: Charles E. DeBose.

Dialect Switching and Mathematical Reasoning Tests: Implications for Early Educational AchievementJ. Michael Terry, Randall Hendrick, Evangelos Evangelou, and Richard L. Smith. Related article in Lingua.

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The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar

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.

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The case for blunders

brilliant-blundersFrom the review of Livio’s book by Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books, March 6, 2014:

Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio, is a lively account of five wrong theories proposed by five great scientists during the last two centuries. These examples give for nonexpert readers a good picture of the way science works. The inventor of a brilliant idea cannot tell whether it is right or wrong. Livio quotes the psychologist Daniel Kahneman describing how theories are born: “We can’t live in a state of perpetual doubt, so we make up the best story possible and we live as if the story were true.” A theory that began as a wild guess ends as a firm belief.”

“The essential point of Livio’s book is to show the passionate pursuit of wrong theories as a part of the normal development of science. Science is not concerned only with things that we understand. The most exciting and creative parts of science are concerned with things that we are still struggling to understand. Wrong theories are not an impediment to the progress of science. They are a central part of the struggle.”

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Methodologies in Semantic Fieldwork


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.”

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Irene Heim

ireneFrom the introduction of The Art and Craft of Semantics: A Festschrift for Irene Heim, edited by Luka Crnič and Uli Sauerland: “For over thirty years, Irene Heim has been a star among stars in the field of semantics and in linguistics as a whole. Her published research alone would place her among the most brilliant contributors to the field, having played a key role in the establishment of semantic research as central to the enterprise of generative linguistics.” The Festschrift can be downloaded here. A printed version of the Festschrift can be ordered from MIT Working Papers in Linguistics.

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The myth of mirror neurons

Gregory Hickok: The myth of mirror neurons. The real neuroscience of communication and cognition. W. W. Norton 2014.


Source: Publisher

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.”

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