Physics items

This month clearly has been a black hole month. Not only did we see the first (highly processed) image of a black hole, LIGO detected five potential events in April after starting their new run. What’s potentially exciting is the fact that not only is there a candidate event for a neutron star – neutron star merger (i.a. enabling independent measures of the universe’s expansion rate) but also the first BH-NS merger which apparently is an even more stringent test bed for General Relativity than BH-BH mergers (here’s Nature and physicsworld).

There’s also the new issue of the Cern Courier out with an interesting piece on precision physics in particle physics, this time on a muon decay that would be unobservable in the Standard Model (I love Chad Orzel’s argumentation for this orthography: “capital S, capital M, no matter what my copyeditors try to claim” – heck, yeah!).
It also does a pretty good job at explaining lepton-flavour conservation and why it is intriguing to search for its violation:

Lepton-flavour conservation is a mainstay of every introductory particle-physics course, yet it is merely a so-called accidental symmetry of the Standard Model (SM). Unlike gauge symmetries, it arises because only massless left-handed neutrinos are included in the model. The corresponding mass and interaction terms of the Lagrangian can therefore be simultaneously diagonalised, which means that interactions always conserve lepton flavour. This is not the case in the quark sector, and as a result quark flavour is not conserved in weak interactions. Since lepton flavour is not considered to be a fundamental symmetry, most extensions of the SM predict its violation at a level that could be observed by state-of-the-art experiments.

Other posts regarding flavour universality are here and here.

Finally, there is an absolutely awesome series by John Baez on PhysicsForum. He goes through all the big physics theories and shows how the assumption of a continuum of spacetime leads to mathematical problems and how e.g. the introduction of Quantum Mechanics ameliorates some of these Newtonian problems but leads to others. Although plebs like me have to skip all the maths parts it’s still very informative.

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Linguistic humour

Between the usual incomprehensible and cringy stuff over at Speculative Grammarian there is the occasional gold nugget such as this:

It has been claimed by a reliable source (Fayce-Booke, 2018) that no Germanic language truly has vowel-initial words; rather, all the words we think start with vowels actually start with a glottal stop. Examining the empirical truth of this claim is beyond the scope of this paper; rather, I will seek to explain why.

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Some links

I apologize to both of my readers for the hiatus in blogging. To make up for it, here are some links to pieces I found in the ‘popular’ press regarding linguistics.

The first made the rounds in quite some outlets as it was about an allegedly unconventional and potentially groundbreaking idea that a physicist had about language acquisition. Language learning is supposed to be like a phase transition where the LAD aka the child goes from its initial state of chaos and complexity to an ordered state with the ability to extract meaningful structure. I don’t know what to make of it, especially as I don’t understand it, but I’m not sure if this will be helpful to language acquisition researchers. But who knows!

The second is an interview about the life and career of the psycholinguist Anne Cutler, the former president of the famous Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the only one of its kind in the world.

There’s also an interesting story (or rather collection of stories) about emerging sign languages by Michael Erard, the pitfalls researchers try to avoid and the potential insights one can gain by closely observing the birth of a new language.

Finally, on the more sociological side, here’s a blogpost about the potential persistence of false paradigms in social science that should give everyone food for thought. The basic admonition is that in fields where there is not (yet) a possibility to experimentally rule out the basic tenets of differing research programs the mechanism of slowly weeding out the worse programs by continuously accumulating evidence might not work as scientists maybe naively assume.

On the physics side, there is a picture of a black hole now. You only could’ve missed that if you were living under a rock which is ironic given that scientists had to avoid much more errors to get that picture than letting light be blocked by rocks. As a lot of people have been recommending, Matt Strassler’s posts on the issue are probably the best as they clear up a lot of misconceptions.

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New linguistics blog

I learned through a new FoL post that there is a nice linguistics blog that I didn’t know about yet. It’s written by Dan Milway, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. I’ll add him to my post about linguistics blogs. In the meantime, here‘s a taste of his writing:

[S]uppose we find an empirical generalization, G (e.g., All languages that allow X also allow Y), the difficult task of the theoretician is to show that G follows from independently motivated theoretical principles. The “theoretician,” on the other hand, has another path available, which is to restate G in “theoretical” terms (e.g., Functional head, H, is responsible for both X and Y), and then (maybe) go looking for some corroboration. Never mind that restating G in different terms does nothing to expand our understanding of why G holds, but understanding is always secondary for instrumentalism.

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Language in sci-fi

Something that I’ve repeatedly encountered in sci-fi recently is the idea of ‘language 2.0’, i.e. the idea that some advanced group of humans or civilizations transcend the boundaries of ordinary natural language and use something way more efficient, insightful and deep. Examples are the cognitively enhanced individuals in Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Understand’ and the scholars from the Second Foundation in Asimov’s … ‘Second Foundation’. However, the substitute they use always strike me as less useful than natural language. Ted Chiang’s characters use e.g. only five words: “They are more pregnant with meaning than any stanza of poetry: each word provides a logical toehold I can mount after extracting everything implicit in the preceding ones.”. That is, a lot is left to pragmatics, and I don’t think that’s such a good idea.

In Second Foundation, ch.8 (“Seldon’s Plan”), we read: ” Speech, originally, was the device whereby Man learned, imperfectly, to transmit the thoughts and emotions of his mind. By setting up arbitrary sounds and combinations of sounds to represent certain mental nuances, he developed a method of communication – but one which in its clumsiness and thick-thumbed inadequacy degenerated all the delicacy of the mind into gross and guttural signaling”. And later: “Grimly, Man had instinctively sought to circumvent the prison bars of ordinary speech. Semantics, symbolic logic, psychoanalysis – they had all been devices whereby speech could either be refined or bypassed”. Following up on that, the First Speaker of the Second Foundation and a student of his ‘talk’ to one another, but they basically only immediately interpret every smallest stir of their interlocutor, since they are trained in the then completely mathematized psychology and sociology. Every raised eyebrow, every small movement can be interpreted as to what the person actually wants to convey.

But again, this strikes me as way to ambiguous (and yes, I know, I’m a nitpicking and suspension of disbelief destroying jerk). One would have thought that they rather choose the exact opposite: using their mathematical language to be more explicit than ordinary humans can be. If you possess such great insight into these matters by having precise, scientific concepts, why not use those? After all, physics is way better to describe with math than with ordinary words. Math is so useful precisely because it is so exact. And physics is the queen of all sciences precisely because it can (at least in a lot of cases) neutralize irrelevant complexity and unwanted confounds. With ever-increasing complexity, and therefore the diminishing use of mathematics, fields of study become less and less precise, starting with biology and culminating in sociology. So if you’re faced with the complexity of the everyday world and you try to convey concepts about it in some way, putting the burden on implicit messages seems precisely the wrong way to go.

As a final note, it would be interesting to see whether these ideas could be formalized by computational complexity or artificial intelligence people. What is the best that you could do in principle when faced at the same with complexity and the need to convey messages precisely. What kind of language does it take? One that is based on digital infinity and the ability to recursively recombine its elements? We already have that.

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Theoretical Computer Science and Scott Aaronson

One of the things that I wish I had known earlier is what theoretical computer science is. TCS is, I think, one of those fields that suffer from many misconceptions (I feel you…). As a young kid you think it’s a field for those people who can do a lot of stuff with their PCs. Yes, it can be, but it is mainly a branch of maths with (unsurprisingly) many useful applications. What slowly dawned on my while I was reading more about it, e.g. stuff by the wonderful Scott Aaronson, that (some parts of) TCS are basically scientific epistemology. Computational complexity, the halting problem, the Church-Turing thesis, Solomonoff induction and the like are all topics that have deep implications for the practical and fundamental knowability of reality (as well as deep implications for my regret of not having studied a more math heavy subject).

Scott Aaronson puts it similarly in this post of his. He also has something to say on linguistics, via Chomsky and the computational complexity of language acquisition, see e.g. this post (with comments here and here), as well as some comments about Chomsky’s minimalism riff here and the MT vs. ‘normal’ linguistics here, with his outsider perspective on the field of linguistics:

I’m very far from an expert, but my outside impression is that Chomskyan formal language theory was a big advance over the status quo in linguistics back in the 50s and 60s (does anyone not agree about that?), but more recently, has had some tendency to get fetishized and used to inhibit progress.

Anyway, know that TCS is awesome and that you should read more Shtetl-Optimized if you want to increase your impostor syndrom.

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Pinker on Chomsky

Here is an excerpt of an interview of Steven Pinker where he talks about Noam Chomsky. I think it gives an interesting insight into the sociology of the field, especially coming from someone who is in general aligned with most of the broader views Chomsky has on linguistics. He describes him as a polarizing figure and that in linguistics one is usually for or against him. As I said above, this is all the more valuable coming from Pinker as it doesn’t allow the ensuing factions to ignore each other’s arguments as an all-out hit piece or as a cult-like following (the usual progression of debates in linguistics…).

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