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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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.

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Steinthal 1871: Languages are not learned, they grow

steinthalAbriss der Sprachwissenschaft : Heymann Steinthal , Franz Misteli. Published in 1871. 

“Von der Sprache ist schon bemerkt, dass sie so wenig gelehrt und gelernt werden kann, wie Sehen und Hören. Wer hat wohl je bemerkt, dass man Kinder sprechen gelehrt hätte? Vielleicht aber hat Mancher schon beachtet, wie vergeblich das Bemühen ist, das man wohl zuweilen anstellt, das Kind zu lehren. Mit Gewissheit aber setze ich voraus, dass Jeder, wer Gelegenheit gehabt hat, ein Kind vom zweiten bis zum vierten Lebensjahre zu beobachten, oft genug darüber erstaunt war, wie urplötzlich das Kind ein Wort oder eine Wortform gebraucht hat. Selten weiss man, woher das Kind das hat. Es hat es ergriffen bei irgend einer Gelegenheit; und ergreifen heisst erzeugen. — Man sollte also gar nicht vom Lernen der Sprache bei Kindern reden. Denn wo keine Lehre, da ist kein Lernen. Nur was der Gärtner mit Samen tut, aus dem er Pflanzen ziehen will, nur das tun wir mit unsern Kindern, um sie zur Sprache zu bringen: wir bringen sie in die nötigen Bedingungen geistigen Wachstums, nämlich in die menschliche Gesellschaft. Aber so wenig der Gärtner wachsen macht, so wenig machen, lehren, wir das Kind sprechen; nach dem Gesetze, dort der Natur, hier des Geistes, entsteht dort die Blume, hier die Sprache im Bewusstsein des Kindes.”

My translation: “Language, as I remarked earlier, is like seeing and hearing in that it can’t be taught or learned. Who has ever seen anybody teach language to a child? Some of you may have experienced how hopeless it is to teach language to children, as has been tried occasionally. I am sure that anybody who has ever had the opportunity to observe a child between the age of two and four was surprised about the sudden use of a word or a word form. We rarely know where the child got it from. The child apprehended it on some occasion or other; and ‘apprehending’ means creating. – We thus shouldn’t talk about learning of language by children. If there isn’t any teaching, there isn’t any learning either. What we do with children to lead them towards language is exactly what a gardener does with a seed from which he wants to produce a plant: we provide them with the necessary conditions for growth, namely human society. The gardener doesn’t truly make plants grow. Likewise, we do not teach children how to speak. A flower grows following the laws of nature. In the same way, language is generated in the consciousness of a child following the laws of the mind.”

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The man who tried to redeem the world with logic


Source: Nautilus

From Nautilus:

“Though they started at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, McCulloch and Pitts were destined to live, work, and die together. Along the way, they would create the first mechanistic theory of the mind, the first computational approach to neuroscience, the logical design of modern computers, and the pillars of artificial intelligence. But this is more than a story about a fruitful research collaboration. It is also about the bonds of friendship, the fragility of the mind, and the limits of logic’s ability to redeem a messy and imperfect world.”

“The moment they spoke, they realized they shared a hero in common: Gottfried Leibniz. The 17th-century philosopher had attempted to create an alphabet of human thought, each letter of which represented a concept and could be combined and manipulated according to a set of logical rules to compute all knowledge—a vision that promised to transform the imperfect outside world into the rational sanctuary of a library.”

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Are natural languages illogical?

Here is an essay on this question by Barbara Partee.

Source: https://plus.google.com/photos/107650590095287703253

Barbara Partee giving the Whatmough Lecture

“There have been centuries of study of logic and of language. Some philosophers and logicians have argued that natural language is logically deficient, or even that “natural language has no logic.” And before the birth of formal semantics in the late 1960’s, most linguists and philosophers were agreed that there was a considerable mismatch between the syntactic structure of natural language sentences and their “logical form.” This essay briefly sketches the history of arguments about the relation between natural language syntax and logical structure, concentrating on the period from Frege to Montague, roughly 1880 to 1970, illustrating the issues with sentences containing quantifiers.”

Here is a video of Barbara Partee’s 2014 Whatmough Lecture at Harvard University. The History of Formal Semantics: Changing Notions of Semantic Competence.

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The dynamic, inquisitive, and visionary life of ϕ, ?ϕ, and ◇ϕ

A festschrift for Jeroen Groenendijk, Martin Stokhof, and Frank Veltman.


Johan van Benthem: Suave radicals. “While the inner sanctum of the Montague system are eternal homomorphisms between the algebras of natural and formal languages, GSV started looking at the dynamic agency behind natural language, as was also done by Lewis, Stalnaker and Kamp, but quickly developing one seminal new theme after another in their own distinctive style at the interface of semantics and pragmatics. One of these themes is the nature of information, perhaps the main currency created and conveyed by natural language. Look at the data semantics of Veltman, or the early work of Groenendijk & Stokhof with van Emde Boas on knowledge, and you will see how this played around 1980. The other main theme, forming a natural unity with the first, is communication between language users, which eventually led to dynamic semantics of the 1980s and 1990s, with classics such as Dynamic Predicate Logic and Defaults in Update Semantics where the potential for changing hearer information is at the heart of the meaning of linguistic expressions. These ideas were developed by paying close attention to carefully selected facts from natural language, concerning anaphora, questions, and conditionals, the way expert geologists detect the presence of gold seams by looking at small, but telling facts of rock coloring or vegetation. In doing all this, GSV achieved something that is rare for academics: they set the international agenda of research of their field, instead of following it.”

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Hans Kamp: Selected Papers

Edited by Klaus von Heusinger & Alice ter Meulen

Edited by Klaus von Heusinger & Alice ter Meulen


Celebrating Hans Kamp’s Selected Writings in Amsterdam

From interview with Alice ter Meulen: “The lack of mutual interest between Chomsky and Montague – to the extent that there was any perception of the other’s achievements, it seems to have been largely negative – may seem strange in one way, since they were motivated by the same deep insight and concern: that natural languages, for reasons that we now find commonplace, but that weren’t at the time, were subject to far greater systematicity than had been assumed until then or at least than anyone had been prepared to openly assert. The relation between form and meaning, they both saw clearly and posited emphatically, had to be essentially lawlike, and for natural languages this had to be in some important sense by ‘design’ – just as for formal languages, even if the designing and the designers were different.”


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