Archive for July, 2012

Macroscopic bosons among us

In the spring of 1995, I was serving on an academic "Planning and Priorities" committee, and some of my fellow committee-members became concerned that there were too many graduate courses, and that this was a symptom of inadequate focus on undergraduate education. I agreed on both counts, though I also felt that an excessive number of grad courses was — and is — generally a bad thing for graduate programs as well.

Anyhow, I became curious about what the distribution of course registrations was actually like. The following note, unearthed after 17 years and recycled as a Language Log post, was the result.  I fished it out of the midden-heap of old email because of its marginal relevance to the July 4 announcement from CERN. It turns out that graduate students, like the Higgs particle, are bosons — or at least, their course-registration choices obey Bose-Einstein statistics

As background, we had been given some historical data that included a disturbing table showing the distribution of student enrollments over graduate courses. Expressed as a percentage of all graduate courses offered during the time-period in question, the numbers were:

Number of students: 1-3 4-6 7-10 11-15 16-20 21-30 30+
Percent of courses: 26.8 18.9 20.7 19.8 6.8 4.5 2.5

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Remove this

In the bathroom at a friend's house tonight I saw, on the underside of the toilet lid, firmly affixed with adhesive, a printed paper sign that I truly do not understand. That is, although I comprehend it (it is in six languages, all of which I read well enough to be able to follow the legend in question), I don't follow what its purpose could possibly be. I am truly baffled. Let me show you what it said. Keep in mind that the following is all of what it says. Nothing is missing from the label, and there is no other wording at all (and incidentally, the various accent mistakes are not mine, they are copied from the original). See if you are as baffled as I am:

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From wraith to smoking duck

I previously described the evolution of the Higgs Boson from Leon Lederman's "wraithlike presence throughout the universe that is keeping us from understanding the true nature of matter", perhaps bowdlerized by his editors from "the goddamn particle" to "the God particle", and onwards to Dennis Overbye's "kind of cosmic molasses […] that would impart mass to formerly massless particles trying to move through it like a celebrity trying to get to the bar".

Yesterday, the high-energy euphoria at CERN seems to have excited some really exotic metaphorical resonances, combining the elementary building-blocks of cultural cognition in ways not normally seen on earth.

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Wordless traffic signs in China

On the blog "Mama's Got Wanderlust", the following sign appears without adequate explanation:

Before turning to the next page, Language Log readers are encouraged to try their hand at an explanation. Write down on a piece of paper what you think the sign means BEFORE you turn the page. Scout's honor!

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Weary of the PRI

Mexico Election: Mexican Immigrants Shocked, Weary of PRI Victory

The word weary in this Latino Fox News headline should have been wary, shouldn't it? There hasn't been time yet for anyone to be weary of the PRI this time around.

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Evolution of a metaphor

Leon Lederman (with Dick Teresi), The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?, 1993:

What, or who, is standing in our way, obstructing our search for the perfect T-shirt? […] Before we can complete the task begun by the ancient Greeks, we must consider the possibility that our quarry is laying false clues to confuse us. Sometimes, like a spy in a John le Carre novel, the experimenter must set a trap. He must force the culprit to expose himself.

Particle physicists are currently setting just such a trap. We're building a tunnel fifty-four miles in circumference that will contain the twin beam tubes of the Superconducting Super Collider, in which we hope to trap our villain.

And what a villain! The biggest of all time! There is, we believe, a wraithlike presence throughout the universe that is keeping us from understanding the true nature of matter. It's as if something, or someone, wants to prevent us from attaining the ultimate knowledge.

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Les Baguettes à Pékin

Pastry shops are very popular in Beijing and other Chinese cities. One chain is called Wèiduōměi 味多美 ("flavor-much-beautiful"). On the company website, they call themselves Wedomé, but the workers' uniforms sport the name Weiduomei.

Julien Paulhan sent in the following photographs taken at a Weiduomei bakery in Beijing:

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In what I think is a fairly recent development, North American universities and other non-profit entities are using using the word advancement for fundraising, public relations, and related activities:

The Office of Advancement supports the mission of Georgetown University and its faculty and students through developing relationships with key constituencies.

Staff who work in the Office of Advancement have one mission: to move people to extraordinary levels of support for Queen's University.

The Office of Advancement is dedicated to supporting the mission of The University of Alberta by fostering relationships that result in continuing goodwill and financial support from alumni, parents, friends, and organizations.

The Office of Advancement will generate and develop the best relationships and resources to achieve Michigan Engineering objectives.

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What he wishes he'd been told about cancer

Jeff Tomczek has an article in the Huffington Post on the things people didn't tell him about getting cancer and undergoing the treatment. It's very good (those who have been through it or are very close to people who did will find much that resonates). But his title is a botch that I think must be due to the myth that English has a "past subjunctive" (which it does not). Here is the title under which his article was published:

The Things I Wish I Were Told When I Was Diagnosed With Cancer

That isn't well-formed English as I understand it. And I have used this language for quite a few years; I'm kind of used to it. I realize that your mileage may differ, but I would judge the above to be actually disallowed by the grammar.

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Churchill, however, . . .

In "Anti-fascist impact" (6/25/2012), I briefly took up the question of where William Strunk might have gotten his 1918 prescription about the use of however:

In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause.

The roads were almost impassable. However, we at last succeeded in reaching camp. The roads were almost impassable. At last, however, we succeeded in reaching camp.

When however comes first, it means in whatever way or to whatever extent.

However you advise him, he will probably do as he thinks best.
However discouraging the prospect, he never lost heart.

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