Archive for Language and science

Extraterrestrial iron

Isaac Schultz, Gizmodo (12/20/22):

The Coolest Archaeological Discoveries of 2022

Let's revisit the best old stuff that made headlines this year.

Some of these are gruesome, e.g., the parasitic worms found in 2,700-year-old toilet, which reminds me of my experiences in Nepal.  Many of them have implications for language and linguistics (see the references and links below).  Most of them attest to cultural contacts across wide distances.

My favorite is King Tut's space dagger, made out of meteoritic iron, which is especially interesting, given that the Iron Age didn't begin until a century after King Tut's death.

The researchers did chemical analyses on the dagger and also turned to ancient Egyptian literature, where they found references to a special dagger gifted to King Tut’s grandfather by a foreign ruler.

(source:  here, here)

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"The psychology of thinking discretely"

Andrew Gelman, "The psychology of thinking discretely", 10/20/2022:

Sander Greenland calls it “dichotomania,” I call it discrete thinking, and linguist Mark Liberman calls it “grouping-think” (link from Olaf Zimmermann).

All joking aside, this seems like an interesting question in cognitive psychology: Why do people slip so easily into binary thinking, even when summarizing data that don’t show any clustering at all:

It’s a puzzle. I mean, sure, we can come up with explanations such as the idea that continuous thinking requires a greater cognitive load, but it’s not just that, right? Even when people have all the time in the world, they’ll often inappropriately dichotomize. I guess it’s related to essentialism (what isn’t, right?), but that just pushes the question one step backward.

As Liberman puts it, the key fallacies are:

1. Thinking of distributions as points;
2. Inventing convenient but unreal taxonomic categories;
3. Forming stereotypes, especially via confirmation bias.

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Pinyin with tones on labels at a TCM research facility

(TCM = Traditional Chinese Medicine) 

Photograph of a small portion of specimen jars at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies northeast of Philadelphia in Warminster, Pennsylvania:

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Copper and tin: a reassessment of basic terms in ancient Chinese metallurgy

During the recent decade and more, we have had dozens of posts dealing with the importance of archeology for studying the spread of ancient languages.  A major subtheme of this research has been the accumulation and assessment of archeological and linguistic evidence for the dissemination of metallurgical technology (see "Selected readings") below.

A new study of an early Chinese text sharpens our understanding of key terms relating to the composition and smelting of bronze during the first millennium BC.  Here is a popular account of this pathbreaking investigation:

Researchers decode metal-making recipes in ancient Chinese text:  Study identifies mystery elements in Kaogong ji, shedding light on how early bronzes were produced

Sascha Pare, The Guardian (8/10/22)

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Infinitely malleable electronic brain — software and hardware

When I was a little boy, among the gifts from my parents that I treasured most were science kits that allowed me to construct my own instrumentation and use it for various experiments and observations, e.g., microscopes, radios and other electronic circuitry, chemistry sets, ingenious language games, and so on.  (This was in the late 40s and 50s in rural Stark County, northeast Ohio, mind you, when I was between the ages of about 5 and 15.)  But my favorite of all was a box full of materials for computer construction.  It consisted of a peg board, switches, wires, screws, small nuts and bolts, metal bands and clips, batteries, little light bulbs, etc.  Please remember that this was long before personal computers were invented.

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Oil: a partial paradigm

Oil is one of the most important substances used by human beings.  It can be an essential food for consumption, a medium for cooking and frying, a lubricant, a material for the transmission of pressure through closed channels, a soothing substance for the skin, a substance to burn for propulsion and illumination, a polishing agent, and so forth.  It can even be used metaphorically and literally to signify a calming agent:

The figurative expression pour oil upon the waters "appease strife or disturbance" is by 1840, from an ancient trick of sailors.

Another historical illustration which involves monolayers, was when sailors poured oil on the sea in order to calm 'troubled waters' and so protect their ship. This worked by wave damping or, more precisely, by preventing small ripples from forming in the first place so that the wind could have no effect on them. [J. Lyklema, "Fundamentals of Interface and Colloid Science," Academic Press, 2000]

The phenomenon depends on what are called Marangoni effects; Benjamin Franklin experimented with it in 1765.*

(source)

[*What did not excite the curiosity of the founder of the University of Pennsylvania?]

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Japanese periodic table versus Chinese periodic table

[This is a guest post by Conal Boyce.]

As they say, "a picture is worth a thousand words." Here are two pictures, copy/pasted from Google Images: First, the Japanese periodic table, then the Chinese periodic table. I apologize for the tiny font, but notice how, in the Japanese periodic table, the symbol 'S' has the word for sulfur (硫黄) under it. That pair of kanji, Romanized as iō, is simply an annotation of the international symbol, S, not meant to 'compete with' S. (Glance also at the very long katakana items that appear elsewhere, e.g., for the element Sc or Mt. The nuance that I'm driving at will become clear after you compare the Chinese periodic table further down, and see how S, Sc, and Mt are handled there. No need to know any Chinese or Japanese at all to see what's afoot here.)


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[click to embiggen]

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'Case Studies of Peer Review'

Eve Armstrong, "The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf: Case Studies of Peer Review":

Abstract: I present for your appraisal three independent cases of the manuscript referee process conducted by a venerable peer-reviewed scientific journal. Each case involves a little pig, who submitted for consideration a theoretical plan for a house to be constructed presently, in a faraway land. An anonymous big bad wolf was assigned by the journal to assess the merit of these manuscripts. The pigs proposed three distinct construction frameworks, which varied in physical and mathematical sophistication. The first little pig submitted a model of straw, based on the numerical method of toe-counting. His design included odd features, such as spilled millet and cloven-hoofprints on the window sill — possibly a ploy to distract the wolf from the manuscript's facile mathematical foundation. The second little pig used a more advanced approach, employing Newton's classical laws of motion, to propose a house of sticks. This pig included in her manuscript copious citations by a specific wolf, possibly aiming to ensure acceptance by flattering the wolf whom she anticipated would be the referee. The third little pig described an ostentatious house of bricks based on an elaborate dynamical systems and stability analysis, possibly scheming to dazzle and impress. The big bad wolf did not appear moved by any of the pigs' tactics. His recommendations were, for straw: the minor revision of water-proofing; for sticks: the major revision of fire-proofing, given concerns surrounding climate change; for bricks: unequivocal rejection, accompanied by multiple derogatory comments regarding "high-and-mighty theorists." I describe each case in detail, and suggest that the wolf's reports might be driven as much by self interest as the manuscripts themselves — namely, that at the time the wolf wrote the reviews, he was rather hungry. Finally, I examine morals learned, if any.

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Tortured phrases: Degrading the flag to clamor proportion

Guillaume Cabanac, Cyril Labbé & Alexander Magazinov, "'Bosom peril' is not 'breast cancer': How weird computer-generated phrases help researchers find scientific publishing fraud", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1/13/2022:

In 2020, despite the COVID pandemic, scientists authored 6 million peer-reviewed publications, a 10 percent increase compared to 2019. At first glance this big number seems like a good thing, a positive indicator of science advancing and knowledge spreading. Among these millions of papers, however, are thousands of fabricated articles, many from academics who feel compelled by a publish-or-perish mentality to produce, even if it means cheating. […]

We have been able to spot fraudulent research thanks in large part to one key tell that an article has been artificially manipulated: The nonsensical “tortured phrases” that fraudsters use in place of standard terms to avoid anti-plagiarism software. Our computer system, which we named the Problematic Paper Screener, searches through published science and seeks out tortured phrases in order to find suspect work. While this method works, as AI technology improves, spotting these fakes will likely become harder, raising the risk that more fake science makes it into journals.

As of January 2022, we’ve found tortured phrases in 3,191 peer-reviewed articles published (and counting), including in reputable flagship publications.

See also (by the same authors) "Tortured phrases: A dubious writing style emerging in science. Evidence of critical issues affecting established journals", arXiv.org 7/12/2021.

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Betelgeuse in Greek, Latin, Arabic, English, and Chinese

AntC led me down a deep, dark rabbit hole by asking:  "Hi Professor Mair, is the Contributing Writer confused, or is it the interwebs?"

He was prompted to ask that question by having read the following statement in this article, "Orion’s love affair, Shen Xiu’s long-distance friendship on Taiwan’s winter sky", Taiwan News, by P.K. Chen, Contributing Writer (2/8/22):

The Greek constellation Orion is called “Shen Xiu” (參宿, “The Three Stars”) in China; “Shen” or “three” refers to the three stars on Orion’s belt, while “Xiu” or “place for rest” refers to where the moon remains fixed and “rests.”

Trying to figure out the relationships among the names of the constellation and its constituent stars in Greco-Latin and Sinitic nomenclature ate up an entire evening.  To start with, there are many possibilities for how to pronounce 參宿, the Chinese equivalent to Orion (constellation name): sānsù (Google Traslate), cānsù (zdic), shēnxiù (Wiktionary).  So we've got a lot of variation involving both characters of the term.  But that's just the beginning of our attempts to grapple with the language and lore concerning Sinoxenic words for Orion. 

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Aristotelian aerosols?

Kasha Patel, "Covid-19 may have seasons for different temperature zones, study suggests", WaPo 1/28/2022:

Aerosol researcher and co-author Chang-Yu Wu explained that local humidity and temperature play vital roles in the size of the virus’s particles, which can influence its life span in the air. Drier atmospheres in colder regions will induce water evaporation from the particles, shrinking their size and allowing them to float in the air for longer periods. People also tend to seek shelter inside in colder environments and expose themselves to recirculated air that potentially contains the virus.

The air in humid, hotter environments contains more water, which can condense onto the virus particles, make them bigger and theoretically fall to the ground faster. Wu compares the particles to a rock in this case — the more mass, the faster it falls.

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Language meets literature; rationality vs. experience; fiction vis-à-vis nonfiction

New article in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), "The rise and fall of rationality in language", Marten Scheffer, Ingrid van de Leemput, Els Weinans, and Johan Bollen (12/21/21)

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Creating scientific terminology for African languages

Article in Nature

"African languages to get more bespoke scientific terms:  Many words common to science have never been written in African languages. Now, researchers from across Africa are changing that", Sarah Wild, Nature 596, 469-470 (August 18, 2021)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02218-x

Here are some selected passages:

There’s no original isiZulu word for dinosaur. Germs are called amagciwane, but there are no separate words for viruses or bacteria. A quark is ikhwakhi (pronounced kwa-ki); there is no term for red shift. And researchers and science communicators using the language, which is spoken by more than 14 million people in southern Africa, struggle to agree on words for evolution.

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