2019

2019 is nearing its end so I thought this is a good reason to look back on what this year has brought us with regard to all things physics, linguistics and sci-comm.

Quanta magazine has, as usual, nice overviews of everything that happened in physics, math & computer science and biology.

The year in fundamental physics was … mixed. Seeing an image of a black hole surely was amazing (but knowing how heavily processed it is takes away a bit of the magic, see an amazing series of blog posts by Prof. Matt Strassler here). On the other hand, it only confirmed a theory that we already know is right for the umpteenth time.

The problems that could not be denied anymore after the LHC turned up nothing now really begin to show. There are no really new exciting directions while at the same time it is clear that the old ones are problematic and potentially fruitless (these still continue though because of inertia).

There are no experimental clues for a new research direction. Physicists were debating whether to build a new, bigger collider is the best way to go, with Sabine Hossenfelder being a critical voice in this regard. Such a collider, however, is several decades away even if it was financed today. But to hope for supersymmetry to show up at 100TeV is at this point delusional.

String theorists are debating where to take their field, if string theory is actually a theory of the real world or a only a useful tool towards a final theory. While the actual equations of the conjectured M-theory are still at large, others (i.e. Vafa et al.) are trying to push the Swampland program in the hope of delimiting possible theories of quantum gravity.

The most demoralizing thing this year was the hype around the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, amplified by certain publications, that let this topic be perceived way more relevant than it actually is (an interpretation, not a theory) while probably (even if not intended) further undermining public trust in science (‘everyone can have their interpretation of theories’)

However, an extremely awe-inspiring feat of engineering happened this year as we witnessed the moment of quantum supremacy.

One area in fundamental physics that is not completely cut off from experiment is the issue surrounding the growing tension in the different measurements of the expansion rate of the universe. This is probably the best hope for new physics that we currently have (apart from some neutrino anomalies and weak signs in B-physics).

 

As for linguistics, there is not much to tell this year. This has several reasons. For reasons unknown to me, linguistics is not as big in the media as physics and news stories about it never center on theoretical linguistics but stupid nonsense. Another reason is that I just started my PhD and I feel like I know almost nothing about the state of the art of linguistics.

For me, there are two highlights this year with regard to linguistics.

One is that Omer Preminger is now blogging quite regularly.  His posts are often quite insightful (although some of it is still above my paygrade) and lead to interesting discussions in the comment section. More often than not, this is about big architectural questions about grammar since he is on his quest to meaningfully structure (see what I did there?) syntax and semantics.
So everyone should go over there and compliment, woo, seduce, serenade and persuade him to write even more in the next year!

The other absolutely amazing thing that blessed online linguistics this year is the blog outdex by Thomas Graf et al. It fills the gap of a computational linguistics perspective on things which is weird, strange, iconoclastic, eye-opening and fascinating. He writes very clearly and down to earth, even I can understand that stuff (most of the time). I can hardly link to a specific post because most of them are actually really good and worth your time.

For these reasons, the above the blogs appear at the top of my blogroll (the highest honour any mortal linguist can attain).

This year also saw the most successful blog post in the history of particlelinguistics. While the usual average visitor number is maybe 2 per week, my overview of blogs in linguistics had almost 500 views in June this year. More people have read this post (than I have (… sorry, couldn’t resist)) than people will ever read any scientific publication of mine. Not sure how that makes me feel.

I still hope that at some point in time I can turn this blog post into what I originally intended it to be: a source of entertaining and insightful accounts of what theoretical linguistics is about, the things we try to find out and the big questions that have to be answered. But I still feel that I don’t know enough to blog confidently about all these issues. Maybe 2020 will be the year!

That said, happy new year 2020!

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Random links

It’s time for a linkfest again.

We start off with some philosophy of linguistics on The Brains Blog where David Pereplyotchik talks about his book Psychosyntax. He discusses three different philosophical approaches towards linguistics, cognitivism, platonism and nominalism.

To get even more dusty, here is some history:
The MPI for Psycholinguistics (the only one of its kind) has a nice webpage (in general but specifically) about its history. There is also a short film by the same institute about ‘A celebration of language‘.

There is also the history of GLOW, with its manifesto, as well as a critical reply.

An interesting text on the website for MIT gradadmissions (linguistics is like physics ) trys to explain what linguistics actually is to outsiders. Maybe this post doesn’t come too late for you trying to make your family understand that as a linguist you don’t participate in excavations.

Talking Brains finally had a non-PhD position related post, What is Cognition?.

I found a blog post by Andrew Gelman about Chomsky, describing his sociological situation as follows: “Chomsky seems to be surrounded mostly by admirers or his haters. The admirers give no useful feedback, and the haters are so clearly against him that he can ignore them. As with others in that situation, Chomsky can then make the convenient choice to ignore the critics who are non-admirers and non-haters. From an intellectual standpoint, those are the people who require the most work to interact with.”

There is an interesting map with the achievements of Cognitive Science by Anna Riedl. Linguistics is basically missing but it’s an interesting map nonetheless.

Replicated Typo has a very entertaining post about the computational nature of language, in the style of a dialogue a la Platon.

This tumblr has a witty sentence that I couldn’t agree with more:

“Morpheme is the Smallest Meaningful Unit in a Language“

is the linguistic equivalent of

“Mitochondria is the Powerhouse of the Cell”

Finally (and absolutely unrelated) there is this story about ultrafinitists in maths view the reality of numbers:

I have seen some ultrafinitists go so far as to challenge the existence of 2100 as a natural number, in the sense of there being a series of “points” of that length. There is the obvious “draw the line” objection, asking where in 21, 22, 23,…, 2100, do we stop having “Platonic reality”? Here this “…” is totally innocent, in that it can easily be replaced by 100 items (names) separated by commas. I raised just this objection with the (extreme) ultrafinitist Yessenin-Volpin during a lecture of his. He asked me to be more specific. I then proceeded to start with 21 and asked him if this was “real” or something to that effect. He virtually immediately said yes. Then I asked about 22 and he again said yes, but with a perceptible delay. Then 23 and yes, but with more delay. This continued for a couple more times, till it was obvious how he was handling this objection. Sure, he was prepared to always answer yes, but he was going to take 2100 times as long to answer yes to 2100 as he would to answering 21. There is no way that I could get very far with this.

Harvey M. Friedman, “Philosophical Problems in Logic”

That’s it for now! Happy holidays!

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phantasia[i] now with RSS

For those of you who are interested in good linguistics blogs, phantasia[i] now has RSS (use this link). Nothing should stop you now from being constantly up to date in the linguistics bloggosphere.

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More linguistics links

News on the linguistics blogs front:

Heidi Harley has a new post (after 3 years 😉 ) about a light bulb moment about Hiaki echo vowels where she accessibly explains an idea she had about a problem she encountered.

Dan Milway continues his discussion of Jerrold Katz’s 1972 Semantic Theory after a hiatus probably caused by finishing his PhD (congrats!).

Chris Collins discusses different types of data in linguistic research and the EPP.

Thomas Graf’s series on subregular complexity in phonology finally arrived at syntax with takes on Merge and Move, islands and more islands. His writing is very clear and understandable, even for a computational amateur like myself. Simply read everything on this amazing blog!

Last but not least is Omer with some anecdotes about the occasional value of imprecise recall where your brain sometimes generously autocorrects your memory of, say, a principle or a generalization into the version that turns out to be more  helpful for your research.

 

On the ‘linguistics in popular press’ front we have an article about the Bender Rule (of hashtag fame), i.e. the rule that you should always mention the language that you are working on to avoid the subconscious equation “Natural Language = English”.

There’s a TEDtalk (the natural product of evolution if you introduce presentations into the ecological niche that is American culture) by Ed Gibson on how efficiency shapes human language.

Linguistics is in ArsTechnica with an MIT study that found that languages generally minimize dependency length.

Some people at MIT also enriched a recurrent neural net (RNN) with a grammar – it is almost as if this RNN had innate knowledge of language – and found out that it compares best in performance to models with little or no added grammar.

A crossover between linguistics and mathematics (in this case applied category theory) is as usual above my paygrade: dynamic syntax, grammars as parsers, context-freeness and monoidal categories or whatever all that means over on the n-Category café. So if you want to go down the rabbit hole of general abstract nonsense (not my term!), there you go!

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Linguistics links

The Nautilus issue on Language has come to an end, and it’s… mixed.
After highlights by David Adger, Christof Koch discusses (at least at the end of his article) whether language is necessary for consciousness or not. Next is a very good article on a similar issue but with a focus on aphasia and cognitive abilities after its occurrence, by Anna Ivanova, a PhD-student at MIT.

Next is an article about the “removal of cultural emblems”. Not sure what that has to do with language. Then we have an article in the category “Not wrong but will definitely give readers a completely wrong impression what relevant and deep questions in linguistics are about, with the danger of leaving them with the hazy impression that Sapir-Whorf is right” (yup, I need a catchier name) on the expression of the colour ‘red’ in different languages. (This article in Scientific American is similar, linguists on Trump’s tweets…).

The issue ends with articles on freedom and mergers with AI, giving up any pretense of writing about language.

There have, however, been two language related posts on Nautilus’s blog, one is about the successes and failures of artificial language change, and another about language acquisition. The latter discusses a physicist’s attempt at finding a model for language acquisition, and of course it contains phase transitions (where are symmetries and harmonic oscillators?!?), also discussed here.

 

Some other links:

On the philosophy/sociology of science front there is an article in the Atlantic about the fact that apparently all existing research on the genetics of depression is bogus and doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. It’s aptly titled “A waste of 1000 research papers”.

Stacy McGaugh, great as usual, has a nuanced discussion of the necessity of falsifiability and its shortcomings.

There is a nice twitter thread on specialization in Cognitive Science.

There is a post on OUP’s blog by William Levelt on the history of psycholinguistics in the pre-Chomsky era.

Finally, there is a nice linguistics puzzle on Chris Collin’s blog

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New linguistics blog!

There is a new blog in town – phantasia[i], by Kirill Vasiltsov!

He has nice posts e.g. on acceptability, the Poverty of the Stimulus argument and of course on merge (or Merge or MERGE).

I’ll add him to my overview of good linguistics blogs. Unfortunately the blog doesn’t seem to have an RSS thingy (or I’m just too dumb…) so I can’t add him to my feed.

Other than that, it’s a great blog, go read it 🙂

 

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David Adger in Nautilus and other stuff

The latest issue of Nautilus is devoted to language, and against all expectations they actually have valuable article about linguistics there (not just linguists that are asked to pontificate about Donald Trump’s language, although there is that as well).

First comes an interview with David Adger (at least partly the reason for this is his upcoming book “Language Unlimited“), with refreshingly nuanced and diplomatic takes on topics like UG and Piraha. You also get the sweet old #mergehype.

Next is a piece by David Adger himself where he explains the basic ideas of current Minimalism like Merge and Move in a very accessible manner. I really wish more popular articles about linguistics were like this and the usual “Hey let’s talk about language, therefore culture yadayada Trump yadayada deeply engrained image something something yada” or the one time where they let a non-linguist blather on about the emergence of language (let’s not talk about it).

(Let me at this point also take the opportunity to plug in David Adger’s blog (with articles like this one).)

Nautilus also published a short story by Ted Chiang (of Arrival fame) about talking parrots. It’s not as dumb as it sounds, but also not as awesome as we’re used to from him.

As for other random stuff loosely related to linguistics:

An article in the Atlantic about Williams Syndrome and its often associated hyper-sociality where Cedric Boeckx makes an appearance with a paper about the self-domestication hypothesis popular among biolinguistics people (Cedric has a small Biolinguistics group in Barcelona).

A short sketch on BBC2 about the dangers of artifical intelligence that can subtitle videos with an accuracy of 93% (and that has problems with proper names like Vladimir Puking).

There is an interesting collection on LinguistList of Famous Linguists describing their life paths – makes for some interesting reads!

The dozens of texts that people have written on the occasion of Chomsky’s 90th birthday (Happy Belated Birthday!!!) are online.

There is such a thing as the International Cognitive Linguistics Association, they have a website, and on that they give a short overview of what cognitive linguistics actually is and how it came to be historically. Maybe I will at some point in my life understand what functional/cognitive linguistics is all about.

That’s it so far!

 

 

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