David Adger in Nautilus continued

There’s an interview of David Adger in the current issue of Nautilus. It contains everything that the laws of physics dictate a linguistics interview should be about: Universal Grammar, merge, Arrival, Piraha, something something language is such a central part of human life/society blabla.

One (part of an) interview question that I celebrated was the following: Your ideas evoke probably the only controversy in the linguistics world that has spilled over to popular culture—the debate over “universal grammar.”

In general, David Adger is as informative and gentle as ever, using non-inflammatory rhetoric on the topic of UG (which is as always very welcome).

So, cool thing to have actual linguists in science magazines although the day is still to come where actual in-depth questions about theoretical linguistics are asked.

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New measurement of Universe’s expansion

The Acatama Cosmology Telescope just released its measurements of the cosmic microwave background. The inferred expansion rate of the universe agrees with the ones of previous Planck missions.

This is interesting insofar as the question of the rate of the expansion is one of cosmology’s biggest mysteries right now. Measurements from the early universe and measurements of later times derived from i.a. supernova data do not agree. So this new measurement gives additional credibility to the old Planck data, making experimental error increasingly unlikely.

The Hubble tension as its called gets tenser and tenser.

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Another blog

Just discovered another (semi-active) linguistics blog: Buffalo linguist which is largely about phonetics, e.g. see here the most recent post on phonetic universals.

I’ll add the blog to my overview post.

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The road to a bigger collider?

News were making the rounds on Friday that the CERN council unanimously decided that in their research strategy they’re placing (most but not all) their bets on the Future Circular Collider (FCC), the 100km circumference proton-proton collider that would reach energies of about 100TeV. This is discussed in Nature and on Peter Woit’s blog.

A critical essay by Sabine Hossenfelder appeared in SciAm where she voiced her previous concerns that in contrast to the LHC there is no guarantee that physicists will find anything and that it is therefore hard to make a scientific case for such a huge amount of money.

Update: For anyone who speaks French or is able to use online translating tools, there is also an article in Le Monde about the topic by Adam Falkowski, author of Résonaances.

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XENON experiment excess & Résonaances

News came out just today that the XENON experiment, an underground lab in Italy looking for dark matter particles, saw a 3.5sigma excess in their data. Physicists right now are on a spectrum ranging from cautiously hyped to pessimistic due to trust issues from one too many disappearing anomalies.

If it is not due to impurities in their detector material which seems to be most people’s best cautious guess, and if the anomaly doesn’t vanish with more data, the best explanation would be axions or sofar unknown properties of neutrinos. However, both options also seem problematic since apparently that these particles with the properties necessary to explain the excess would carry away a lot of energy from stars (where they’re probably produced) than observations allow.

You can read about this, as always, in Quantamagazine and the experiment’s own webpage.

To honour the occasion, my favourite physics blog has awaken from its slumber: Résonaances aka Adam Falkowski is back with its first post in two years!

So, fingers crossed!

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New Inference Issue

A new issue of Inference just appeared, this time again with articles on linguistics. The first one is about Misused Terms in Linguistics by Eveline Leivada where she undertakes the laudable task to define and explain controversial terms in linguistics; terms (such as, you guessed it, UG) that are controversial because, according to her, they have been used inconsistently and inaccurately. The best quote in the article by far is that ‘linguists would rather share each others’ toothbrush than each others’ terminology’. Something tells me that, still, all her definitions could lead to controversy.

The second is rather loosely related to theoretical linguistics, a text about people’s inner speech by David Lobina.

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Evidence for CP-violation in neutrinos

The news has made the rounds that the T2K experiment in Japan discovered evidence for an asymmetry in the behaviour of neutrinos and antineutrinos. The violation of this symmetry (CP-symmetry) seems to be almost as large as possible which is why the experiment was able to gather the data faster than initially thought.

More data is still needed for a definitive discovery which will still require some years to gather.

However, if this hint turns out to be true (and it seems most physicists expect that it will) then it will provide new directions for beyond-Standard-Model physics.

As usual, you can best read about it in Quanta (with an earlier discussion some years ago when this effect first turned up here). Nature and Interactions also have worthwhile articles, while CernCourier has a bit more technical coverage (with some explanation as to what such a result would hint at theoretically here).


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Physics & Maths items

I want to keep the tradition alive that this is an ‘interdisciplinary’ blog, i.e. to post about stuff I don’t understand, i.e. physics and math.

The first item is an interesting ongoing real life experiment in the sociology of science. 8 years ago, Shinichi Mochizuki claimed to have proven the abc-conjecture (I henceforth refuse for the indefinite future to be shamed by mathematicians for unimaginative technical terms in linguistics). Apparently, this is a conjecture about a deep and unexpected relationship between addition and multiplication.

To achieve that, Mochizuki developed a whole theory of his own, Interuniversal Teichmüller theory (again…), dropped like 1500 pages of impenetrable, idiosyncratic notation on the arXiv and left it at that. He refuses to give talks on it or hold lectures outside of Japan and leaves it to his colleagues to try to explain this to other mathematicians. In these 8 years, nobody was able to verify the proof. Granted, a lot of people simply didn’t try because the volume of necessary reading was way too much and because they couldn’t follow the style of presentation. Then, Jakob Stix and Peter Scholze (of Fields Medal fame) worked through the material, found an alleged gap in the proof and a week-long meeting with Mochizuki in Japan couldn’t remove their doubt (portrayed in this Quanta article).

Now, the math journal of Mochizuki’s institute (of which he is an editor) decided to publish his proof, a weird choice given that this usually means that the proof has been vetted and verified in the peer review process – while at the same time, most experts in the field can’t follow the logic of the proof.

Peter Scholze also commented on the current situation on Peter Woit’s blog, with an ongoing discussion with people who claim to understand the proof.

The last bits are from Scott Aaronson’s answers in his post “AMA: Apocalypse Edition“: here are his thoughts on the It from Qubit idea in fundamental physics (the whole spacetime emerges from quantum entanglement business) and whether undecidability/uncomputability are relevant for physics.

Finally, the editor’s choice for interesting article today appears in Quanta about progress in the Langlands program (a set of conjectures relating vastly different fields in maths to each other in deep and surprising ways).



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If only we could identify patterns in humans’ cognitive behaviour…

A while ago there was an article in Quantamagazine about neuroscience, “To Decode the Brain, Scientists Automate the Study of Behaviour“. It’s main gist is that scientists used machine learning to classify patterns in the behaviour of animals, or as the subtitle puts it to “capture and analyze the “language” of animal behavior”.

This quote puts it quite succinctly:

By studying animals’ behaviors more rigorously and quantitatively, researchers are hoping for deeper insights into the unobservable “drives,” or internal states, responsible for them. “We don’t know the possible states an animal can even be in,” wrote Adam Calhoun […]

Tracing those internal states back to specific activity in the brain’s complex neural circuitry presents a further hurdle. Although sophisticated tools can record from thousands of neurons at once, “we don’t understand the output of the brain,” Datta said. “Making sense of these dense neural codes is going to require access to a richer understanding of behavior.”

The article then goes on to describe how modern technology like motion tracking revolutionized the quantitative study of the behavior of animals by letting scientists track, collect and analyze movement patterns and so on.

The article then segues into deeper questions:

Because pose-tracking software has simplified data collection, “now we can think about other problems,” said Benjamin de Bivort, a behavioral biologist at Harvard University. Starting with: How do we define the building blocks of behavior, and how do we interpret them? […]

The zoologist Ilan Golani at Tel Aviv University has spent much of the past six decades in search of a less arbitrary way to describe and analyze behavior — one involving a fundamental unit of behavior akin to the atom in chemistry.

It goes on to describe a breakthrough that discovered minimal building blocks in the movements of mice.

The dynamics of the animals’ three-dimensional behavior seemed to segment naturally into small chunks that lasted for 300 milliseconds on average. “This is just in the data. I’m showing you raw data,” Datta said. “It’s just a fundamental feature of the mouse’s behavior.”

Those chunks, he thought, looked an awful lot like what you might expect a unit of behavior to look like — like syllables, strung together through a set of rules, or grammar.

This is of course only an analogy, a handy metaphor, because language is not behaviour.
Because of these advances “they’re starting to make the first connections to the brain and its internal states”.

Datta and his colleagues discovered that in the striatum, a brain region responsible for motor planning and other functions, different sets of neurons fire to represent the different syllables identified by MoSeq. So “we know that this grammar is directly regulated by the brain,” Datta said. “It’s not just an epiphenomenon, it’s an actual thing the brain controls.”

The article then ends with this inspirational passage

The scientists are careful to note that these techniques should enhance and complement traditional behavioral studies, not replace them. They also agree that much work needs to be done before core universal principles of behavior will start to emerge. Additional machine learning models will be needed, for example, to correlate the behavioral data with other complex types of information.

“This is very much a first step in terms of thinking about this problem,” Datta said. He has no doubt that “some kid is going to come up with a much better way of doing this.” Still, “what’s nice about this is that we’re getting away from the place where ethologists were, where people were arguing with each other and yelling at each other over whether my description is better than yours. Now we have a yardstick.”

“We are getting to a point where the methods are keeping up with our questions,” Murthy said. “That roadblock has just been lifted. So I think that the sky’s the limit. People can do what they want.”

Reading this article as a linguist leads to a mix of very diverse feelings. On one hand it is great to see these advances in the behaviour of animals and its links to neurological signals. On the other hand it is funny to see how the mere beginning of an understanding of patterns in behaviour is hailed as a breakthrough while a general classification is viewed as the holy grail that could bring cognitive science/neuroscience to unimaginable new depths.

We already do have a pretty advanced (comparatively) understanding of the behaviour (of a higher cognitive function even) of an animal: language in homo sapiens. We actually know of ‘syllables’ in the structure of language, and how they are strung together, almost as if we had an understanding of the ‘grammar’ of how language works. We are even so far that we can do theoretical debate about the structure of these patterns: what the actual minimal building blocks are or if some of them have to be broken up further, how these building blocks are related to each other, what the best framework is to talk about etc. That is, we are far beyond simply quantitatively collecting data. In this case it is even comparably easy to get access to these data.

For some reason, however, this does not make linguistics the most advanced cognitive science around in the eyes of the public, neighbouring fields or even some linguists themselves. Talking is not a cognitive function, is just stuff humans do, like filling out tax forms or knowing the rules of football. This is similar to the argument Norbert Hornstein has been making about the fact that if bee dances can earn you a Nobel prize in biology, linguists should be able to get them, too.

What’s even more sad, but on a different level, is the fact that even though we do have such a comparably deep understanding, this still doesn’t help us to achieve those Nobel prize-worthy discoveries in linking cognition to activity in the brain (which is the impression you get at the end of the article: “Just imagine what we could do now with the understanding of behaviour from in 50 years”).

So it’s still early days.



Before I forget, there have been some other articles with tangential links to linguistics in Quantamagazine in the last year:

One is about recent efforts and achievements in Natural Language Understanding, i.e. more from an engineering perspective than from a scientific one, but people like Tal Linzen and also colourful green ideas make an appearance.

The other is about discoveries about computational power inside single neurons, something that should make those happy who are fans of Gallistel & King & co.



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Unrecently in the linguistic blogosphere

I stumbled upon a very interesting debate about opacity on two blogs that are not active anymore: Mr. Verb and phonoloblog (now Phonolist which is unfortunately not really a blog).

I love big architectural debates about core issues about grammar, especially if that is combined with theory comparison. Therefore, the opacity debate in phonology is the perfect battleground for heated discussions on blogs. Best to start here, here and here.

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