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Posts Tagged ‘science’

28 JUNE, 2013

Scandal, Censorship, Science: How Darwin Shaped Our Understanding of Why Language Exists

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What The Origin of Species and the love of dogs reveal about comprehension and cognition.

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf memorably proclaimed in the only surviving recording of her voice. But even in this beautifully aphoristic observation lies an unsolvable chicken-or-egg mystery: Where did words come from in the first place?

Charles Darwinman of routine, graphic novel hero, upbeat evaluator of marriage, occasional grump, poetry muse, rap muse, frequent literary jukeboxer — may have carved his place in history as the father of evolutionary theory, but he also demonstrated that science and the humanities need each other as he made major contributions to our understanding of why language emerged and how it shaped the course of our species.

In The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language (public library) — the fascinating chronicle of two intertwined stories, of how language evolved long ago and of what spurred a handful of modern scientists, including Darwin, to explore that mystery at the specific time they did — science writer Christine Kenneally traces Darwin’s linguistic legacy:

Although Darwin mentioned language very little in On the Origin of Species, the book is a keystone for every discussion about language evolution that has followed it. In fact, all debate about who we are and how we came to be on this planet can be divided into conversations that took place before the publication of Origin and those that have taken place after it. Origin was printed six times during Darwin’s lifetime, and many times since. Not only did it introduce the concept of evolution … but it initiated the modern study of evolutionary biology. The flow of books published about Darwin every year seems endless.

Darwin focused more on language in The Descent of Man (1871) than in Origin. Language was not a conscious invention, he said, but “it has been slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps.” At the same time, he noted, humans don’t speak unless they are taught to do so … because language is “not a true instinct.”

Darwin believed that language was half art, half instinct, and he made the case that using sound to express thoughts and be understood by others was not an activity unique to humans. He cited the examples of monkeys that uttered at least six different cries, of dogs that barked in four or five different tones, and of domesticated fowl that had “at least a dozen significant sounds.” He noted that parrots can sound exactly like humans and described a South American parrot that was the only living creature that could utter the words of an extinct tribe. Darwin included gesture and facial expressions under the rubric of language: “The movements of the features and gestures of monkeys are understood by us, and they partly understand ours.”

In fact, the father of evolution, known for his experiments on emotional expression in humans and animals, was also one of history’s most significant dog-lovers and, at a time when the question of what it means to be human stripped most other sentient beings of comprehension and cognition, he believed dogs were capable of both:

“As everyone knows,” he wrote, “dogs understand many words and sentences.” He likened them to small babies who comprehend a great deal of speech but can’t utter it themselves. Darwin quoted his fellow scholar Leslie Stephen: “A dog frames a general concept of cats or sheep, and knows the corresponding words as well as a philosopher [does].”

He also explored the question of why birds sing with a surprisingly humanistic lens:

Darwin also pointed out compelling parallels between human language and birdsong. All birds, like all humans, utter spontaneous cries of emotion that are very similar. And both also learn how to arrange sound in particular ways from their parents. “The instinctive tendency to acquire an art,” said Darwin, “is not peculiar to man.”

What set us apart from animals, he argued, was a matter of degree, not kind — a greater ability to produce sounds and ideas, an expression of our higher mental powers. Where humans differ from other animals, Darwin believed, is simply in our greater capacity to put together sounds with ideas, which is a function of our higher mental powers.

But as the era’s linguists enthusiastically embraced the perfect parallel biological evolution offered a for the emergence of language, they remained skeptical about how scientific a problem speculating about the origin of language was and were thus ambivalent about adopting Darwin’s theory as fact. Perhaps ironically, given we now know that ignorance is what drives rather than hinders science and Richard Feynman has wisely advised that allowing for uncertainty and doubt is scientists’ chief responsibility, this inability to remain speculative resulted in one of the most profound instances of censorship in scientific history:

The distaste for speculation about language origins culminated in an extraordinary move by the Société de Linguistique of Paris in the nineteenth century: it banned any discussion of the subject, even though it was attracting more and more attention. Its pronouncement read: “The Society will accept no communication concerning either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language.” In 1872 the London Philological Society followed suit.

This act of academic censorship, Kenneally writes, had strikingly enduring consequences. It wasn’t until nearly a century later that a handful of modern linguistic heroes — scientists like Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker — picked up the vetoed inquiry, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, which is spectacularly stimulating, goes on to explore the enduring mystery of how our vehicle of communication evolved. Kenneally frames the journey with precisely the blend of poetic reflection and rigorous scientific inquiry that underpins the fascinating story she unravels:

For all its power to wound and seduce, speech is our most ephemeral creation; it is little more than air. It exits the body as a series of puffs and dissipates quickly into the atmosphere.

[…]

Only very recently have scientists begun to work out how language evolved. But in the same way that no single fossil can provide an answer, no one researcher can solve this problem, which is fundamentally awesome and multifaceted. There will be no Einstein of linguistic evolution, no single grand theory of the emergence of language. Unearthing the earliest origins of words and sentences requires the combined knowledge of half a dozen different disciplines, hundreds of intelligent, dedicated researchers, and a handful of visionary individuals. Finding out how language started requires technology that was invented last week and experiments that were conducted yesterday. It also needs simple basic experiments that have never been done before.

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24 JUNE, 2013

The Surprising History of the Pencil

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What medieval smuggling has to do with the atomic structure of carbon.

Having previously explored such mysteries as who invented writing and how sounds became shapes, it’s time to turn to something much less mysterious, a seemingly mundane yet enormously influential tool of human communication: the humble pencil.

“Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak,” states the first of Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules of writing. “But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.” But even though the pencil has fueled such diverse feats of creative culture as celebrated artists’ sketchbooks, Marilyn Monroe’s soulful unpublished poems, Lisa Congdon’s stunning portraits, and David Byrne’s diagrams of the human condition, it has only been around for a little over two hundred years. In the altogether fascinating 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know: Math Explains Your World (public library), John D. Barrow tells the story of this underrated technological marvel:

The modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. The magic material that was so appropriate for the purpose was the form of pure carbon that we call graphite. It was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the fifteenth century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier. Initially it was believed to be a form of lead and was called ‘plumbago’ or black lead (hence the ‘plumbers’ who mend our lead water-carrying pipes), a misnomer that still echoes in our talk of pencil ‘leads’. It was called graphite only in 1789, using the Greek word ‘graphein’ meaning ‘to write’. Pencil is an older word, derived from the Latin ‘pencillus’, meaning ‘little tail’, to describe the small ink brushes used for writing in the Middle Ages.

Nicholas-Jacques Conte

But the history of the pencil, like that of many seminal innovations, has a dark side:

The purest deposits of lump graphite were found in Borrowdale near Keswick [England] in the Lake District in 1564 and spawned quite a smuggling industry and associated black economy in the area. During the nineteenth century a major pencil manufacturing industry developed around Keswick in order to exploit the high quality of the graphite.

And yet the pencil industry blossomed:

The first factory opened in 1832, and the Cumberland Pencil Company has just celebrated its 175th anniversary; although the local mines have long been closed and supplies of the graphite used now come from Sri Lanka and other far away places. Cumberland pencils were those of the highest quality because the graphite used shed no dust and marked the paper very well.

The oldest pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630. (Image: Faber-Castell)

Plain as it appears, however, the pencil has evolved significantly since its invention:

Conte’s original process for manufacturing pencils involved roasting a mixture of water, clay and graphite in a kiln at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit before encasing the resulting soft solid in a wooden surround. The shape of that surround can be square, polygonal or round, depending on the pencil’s intended use — carpenters don’t want round pencils that are going to roll off the workbench. The hardness or softness of the final pencil ‘lead’ can be determined by adjusting the relative fractions of clay and graphite in the roasting mixture. Commercial pencil manufacturers typically market 20 grades of pencil, from the softest, 9B, to the hardest 9H, with the most popular intermediate value, HB, lying midway between H and B. ‘H’ means hard and ‘B’ means black. The higher the B number, the more graphite gets left on the paper. There is also an ‘F’, or Fine point, which is a hard pencil for writing rather than drawing.

Barrow offers the science behind an oft-cited trivia factlet:

The strange thing about graphite is that it is a form of pure carbon that is one of the softest solids known, and one of the best lubricants because the six carbon atoms that link to form a ring can slide easily over adjacent rings. Yet, if the atomic structure is changed, there is another crystalline form of pure carbon, diamond, that is one of the hardest solids known.

For the mathematically-minded, Barrow offers a delightful curiosity-quencher:

An interesting question is to ask how long a straight line could be drawn with a typical HB pencil before the lead was exhausted. The thickness of graphite left on a sheet of paper by a soft 2B pencil is about 20 nanometers and a carbon atom has a diameter of 0.14 nanometers, so the pencil line is only about 143 atoms thick. The pencil lead is about 1 mm in radius and therefore ? square mm in area. If the length of the pencil is 15 cm, then the volume of graphite to be spread out on a straight line is 150? cubic mm. If we draw a line of thickness 20 nanometers and width 2 mm, then there will be enough lead to continue for a distance L = 150? / 4 X 10-7 mm = 1,178 kilometers.

100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know: Math Explains Your World goes on to explore such fascinating questions as the origami of the universe, what rugby has to do with relativity, how long things are likely to survive, and more.

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17 JUNE, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Your Ego and the Cosmic Perspective

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“All you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.”

There is hardly a greater cosmic sage of our age than astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In this sublime, characteristically eloquent short clip from BigThink, he echoes Ptolemy’s awe as he teases apart the misguided tension between our human ego and the immensity of the universe:

There’s something about the cosmic perspective, which for some people is enlightening and for other people it’s terrifying. For those who are terrified by it, they’re here on earth and they have a certain self-identity, and then they learn that earth is tiny and we’re in this void of interplanetary space and then there’s a star that we call the Sun and that’s kind of average and there’s a hundred billion other stars in a galaxy. And our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of 50 or 100 billion other galaxies in the universe. And with every step, every window that modern astrophysics has opened to our mind, the person who wants to feel like they’re the center of everything ends up shrinking. And for some people they might even find it depressing, I assert that if you were depressed after learning and being exposed to the perspective, you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego. You thought more highly of yourself than in fact the circumstances deserved.

So here’s what you do: You say, “I have no ego at all.” Let’s start that way. “I have no ego, no cause to puff myself up.” Now let’s learn about the cosmic perspective. Yeah, we’re on a planet that’s orbiting a star, and a star is an energy source and it’s giving us energy, and we’re feeling this energy, and life is enabled by this energy in this star. And by the way, there’s a hundred billion other stars that have other planets. There might be other life out there, could be like us. It’s probably not like us, but whatever it is, it’d be fascinating to find out who it is. Can we talk to them? Can we not? Are they more advanced? Are they less advanced? By the way, the atoms of our body are traceable to what stars do.

And all you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.

So those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.

Curiously, the same can be said of life in New York — that tired complaint about being a tiny fish in an immense pond, a nobody in a crowd of somebodies, speaks to that same ego and its stubborn unwillingness to bask in the greater glory of it all rather than wallow in its own smallness. What Anaïs Nin memorably perceived of the self in New York — “Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power.” — is, in turn, equally and immutably true of the self in the universe.

If you haven’t yet read Tyson’s fantastic Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier — one of the best science books of 2012 — do yourself an existential favor.

Swiss Miss

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