Blog

How Scientific Language Is Created

December 21, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week, I posted a blog about Bohr’s use of language. Specifically, I wanted to investigate how the field of science will find ways to accurately describe indescribable events. I discussed the way that modal verbs (helping verbs which express doubt or uncertainty like “might” or “could”) can negatively affect the reception of a scientific article. I think Bohr embraced this idea of uncertainty. In fact, he claims that areas of uncertainty become the best areas for advancement because they point out specific questions. Rather than formulating science as if it were static he asked that we (both the scientist and the reader) investigate our use of language, our preconceived notions, and our unknowns. Bohr accepts, in fact, desires to imbue scientific language with doubt. I think he goes to great lengths when discussing language in order to enlighten future generations of scientists and readers as to the complexities involved in atomic sciences. That science can be grounded upon facts but still involve many, many questions is part of the reality of science. Therefore, language must reflect this reality. Really, we do not have all the answers and should not proceed as if we do. The problem is, however, that journal articles which include doubtful language are often regarded as less rigorous, less accurate, and less scientific. Bohr, however, would applaud these articles as attempts to base the unknowns upon the knowns. Moving forward, moving into an era of atomic theory, then, will demand a higher sense of intelligence from both readers and scientists.

In today’s blog, I want to better understand two parts of the question of scientific language. First, I am interested in the perception and reception of modal verbs in languages other than English. If modal verbs in English are perceived as unscientific, are they also perceived this way in other languages? Much of science is presented in English. In limiting our scientific language to a handful of languages, do we limit our ability to describe the indescribable? Scientists often think outside the box in order to find terms that reflect what they find. For example, names of celestial bodies refer to mythological beings. Latin terms classify plants. Clouds, too, were named in Latin according to observable features. What then, do we use to describe atomic energy: metaphor, mythology, ancient languages, compounds? If scientific articles are published in only a handful of languages, does this exclude some metaphoric understanding or phrasing from an outside culture? Does the way that we currently publish scientific findings prohibit (or at least discourage) any culture from entering the dialogue? Also, how do we adequately translate any scientific finding into another language? It is common in the scientific realm to stick to the original language when using a specific term. So, the Latin name “cirrus” is often used in the translation, rather than a word from the target language. However, using a term for an identifiable object, such as a cloud (or plant), is very common and accessible which is not true of atomic theories. In other words, it is incredibly difficult to adequately express the experience of atomic behavior in any accurate, identifiable, universal language. I just wonder if this dependence upon one particular language limits us in some unforeseeable way.

My second question today deals with Bohr’s insistence that we continue to use classical terminology even for unobservable data. I understand the importance of adherence to non-abstract language as a way to describe abstract ideas. However, language is never static, which may present problems for the idea of classical terminology. For example, atomic theory is so named only because at one time we assumed that atoms were the smallest pieces of material in existence. We now know that this is not true, so we have adjusted the definition of atomic as well as the public perception of the science. Furthermore, from Bohr’s Atomic Theory I chose to look up the term “ion” and am still uncertain about the definition’s accuracy. According to Merriam-Webster, “ion” is defined as either “1: an atom or group of atoms that carries a positive or negative electric charge as a result of having lost or gained one or more electrons; or 2: a charged subatomic particle (such as a free electron).” The terms “lost” and “gained” included in this definition make it sound as if an atom has a natural state, and that the ion is not the natural state. I struggle with this because having an electric charge may be considered just as natural as any other state. It may be important to note that the ion is less stable than another state, but that is not what the definition explicitly says. So, even if we stick with classical terminology, definitions will change over time. In fact, just in scanning the Wikipedia page for “ion,” our understanding has rapidly progressed in just under one hundred years. Furthermore, scientists such as Faraday (who first discovered ions) may have used the term differently than contemporary scientists. This is, of course, something that Bohr was intensely aware of, but perhaps the layperson will not understand the subtleties of these changes. I do understand his explanations regarding classical terminology, yet still, I am left wondering how one might be conversant in the language of science without knowing the history of an innumerable amount terms.

Clearly I am not a scientist, and I do not have the necessary skills to examine a lot of the terminology in Bohr’s Atomic Theory. However, I do spend a lot of time thinking about the effect of language on communication, society, and human life in general. I feel that it is of great importance (and benefit) to consider these larger questions as they relate to specific fields. I am grateful to Niels Bohr who used language as carefully and precisely as possible, so that even someone such as myself could attempt to understand the complexities of Atomic Theory.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Bohr's Use of Language

December 14, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.

At the end of the fourth chapter of Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature, Niels Bohr writes, “Besides, the fact that consciousness, as we know it, is inseparably connected with life ought to prepare us for finding that the very problem of the distinction between the living and the dead escapes comprehension in the ordinary sense of the word. That a physicist touches upon such questions may perhaps be excused on the ground that the new situation in physics has so forcibly reminded us of the old truth that we are both onlookers and actors in the great drama of existence.” I love the stage analogy that Bohr uses. I picture a camera forever panning backwards. When the scene begins, we are looking at a stage, but as the camera moves backward the audience is on the stage. Included in my visualization is that both the stage and ourselves become increasingly smaller. This is important to the way that I see Bohr’s argument. Bohr suggests that even if we can claim to know pieces of the whole, we will never see the complete picture at one time. This is not to say that we cannot connect pieces in the way that we do a puzzle, but that no single piece can stand as significant of the whole. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature explains that the future of science will be (and already is) beyond our senses. Instead of seeing reactions and experiments, we must rely upon a variety of tests, the accumulation of which will grant a picture of the whole. At no one time, Bohr reminds us, will we be able to actually see the whole, however. In both this piece and in “Discussion with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics,” Bohr explains how his view differs from Einstein. Unlike Bohr, Einstein believed that at some point we will have a complete picture of atomic physics.

A recent discussion of these readings sparked my curiosity about the things which validate science, such as observable data. I am also interested in the way that Bohr compares atomic theory to classical philosophy. By this, I mean that he understands that there are unknowns in atomic theory. Finally, I also want to know more about the way he emphasizes that the scientist is a part of the experiment. In Atomic Theory he writes, “The resignation as regards visualization and causality, to which we are thus forced in our description of atomic phenomena, might well be regarded as a frustration of the hopes which formed the starting-point of the atomic conceptions. Nevertheless, from the present standpoint of the atomic theory, we must consider this very renunciation as an essential advance in our understanding. Indeed, there is no question of a failure of the general fundamental principles of science within the domain where we could justly expect them to apply. The discovery of the quantum of action shows us, in fact, not only the natural limitation of classical physics, but, by throwing a new light upon the old philosophical problem of the objective existences of phenomena independently of our own observations, confronts us with a situation hitherto unknown in natural science. As we have seen, any observation necessitates an interference with the course of the phenomena, which is of such a nature that it deprives us of the foundation underlying the causal mode of description.” As with classical philosophy, we are at a crossroads. This new path is filled with unknowns, and not only that, but unobservable unknowns. Despite this complication, Bohr asks scientists to depend upon established terms which maintain a sense of cohesiveness, but also give us some concrete foundations for theoretical science. This technique hearkens back to the beginnings of philosophy as humans grappled to find language suitable for metaphysics.

The “old philosophical problem of the objective existences” outside of our own hearkens back to the roots of philosophy. In fact, as science moves forward, it must address many of the same questions that began as early as 2000 years ago. To address some of these unknowns, Bohr demands precise language without straying from classical vocabulary. Both Atomic Theory and “Discussion with Einstein” address the difficulty of language for the scientist and for the public. He explains that unknowns do not equal a lack of knowledge or a scientist’s uncertainty about the validity of their research. Rather, an unknown is in itself useful. He labels this dilemma an “intricacy of language.” Bohr writes, “[Q]uantum theory presents us with a novel situation in physical science, but attention was called to the very close analogy with the situation as regards analysis and synthesis of experience, which we meet in many other fields of human knowledge and interest. As is well known, many of the difficulties in psychology originate in the different placing of the separation lines between object and subject in the analysis of various aspects of physical experience. Actually words like ‘thoughts’ and ‘sentiments,’ equally indispensable to illustrate the variety and scope of conscious life, are used in a similar complementary way as are space-time co-ordination and dynamical conservation laws in atomic physics. A precise formulation of such analogies involves, of course, intricacies of terminology, and the writer’s position is perhaps best indicated in a passage in the article, hinting at the mutually exclusive relationship which will always exist between the practical use of any word and attempts at its strict definition.” The imprecision in language exists in all fields, and grows as the field grows. Bohr’s insistence upon utilizing classical terminology is twofold. First, He asks that we use exact, well-defined terms so as to limit misunderstandings. Second, he wishes to avoid further abstraction of an already abstract subject.

Bohr’s focus on the language debate reminded me of a recent article on modal verbs, or verbs which predict rather than describe simple facts. The article claimed that scientific papers often get buried or dismissed because they include words such as “might,” “could,” “may,” “ought,” or “will.” Of course, these verbs reflect the fact that scientists do not have all the answers, and each experiment leads to further unknowns. This dismissal is something that Bohr feared and a reason for his insistence upon classical terminology. Incorporating existing terminology with atomic physics, science remains valid and as independent of the scientist as possible. Again, I am reminded of the fact that, according to Bohr, the scientist is a part of the experiment as much as they are observers. Therefore, if the scientist were to also alter terminology in a way that best suits their vision, they would further insert themselves and their view into the experiment. Furthermore, modal verbs signify opportunity for further experiment. They also reflect Bohr’s insistence upon the fact that we cannot know the whole picture anymore. As we interact with and learn from the world, the complexities in science grow larger. However, while uncertainty can be off-putting, uncertainty in science should be celebrated.

Bohr’s focus on language makes me think that there are opportunities for educators here too. In teaching science (to both scientists and non-scientists), we should include a better understanding of the specificity of language. We can also explain the benefit of things like modal verbs. Perhaps this will better enable us navigate complicated theories and unobservable data. We could also better educate young scientists with writing skills. Integration of these fields seems inextricably tied together. Bohr speaks of the writer’s dilemma which he calls, “the mutually exclusive relationship which will always exist between the practical use of any word and attempts at its strict definition.” In some senses, the scientist is now also a writer. In other words, language is of extreme importance for the future of science and we would do well to also teach according to these principles.

To leave a comment, click on the title of the post and scroll down.

What Is A Weed

September 21, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

According to Merriam-Webster, a weed is either A) a plant that is not valued where it is growing, or B) an obnoxious growth, thing or person. In better understanding how we use the term “weed” and what it signifies, I want to demonstrate how categories perform in speech. (FYI, while I will not be discussing marijuana in this post, which is commonly known as “weed.” Though not addressed here, that discussion would likely add additional highlights to the problematic idea of categories.)

According to definition A, a weed may fall into two categories. In the right location, a weed may be prized (thus making it the opposite of a weed). In other cases it may be obnoxious, or growing over the more desirable plants, such as native plants or landscaped gardens. So definition A means that plants have a value in their specific place. Profundity of growth turns into a metaphor, which in definition B extends to more negative aspects of the term.

Weeds as a category are really interesting for no other reason than the fact that the category stems from something completely subjective. I learned to pull the weeds that my parents did not like. According to their neighbors, however, they may have misapplied the term. Take the dandelion, for example. It was brought to the United States by not one group, but at least three: pilgrims in the east, Spaniards in the west, and French through Canada. Often used in medicines and herbal teas, dandelions proved to be easy to grow and also helpful. However, they spread rapidly due to the seed’s ability to fly far. Though there is no major negative aspect to dandelions, many people today do not like their ability to overtake lawns. I find this idea of a perfectly manicured lawn ironic, too, though. Grass is also, more often than not, an invasive species. Both dandelions and grass grow rapidly and are quick to overrun other plants. In other words, it seems like we do not like weeds in our weeds! So instead, we pull dandelions in favor of grass. The point is, one weed is desired while the other is not. Why do we call grass “grass” instead of weed? Why do we call wild grasses weeds, but not grass? Are we aware of the preconceived notions which formed these categories?

This idea of removing a weed to save a weed is a particularly human construct. The label refers not to the uselessness of an object (either grass or dandelions can have utility, depending upon preference and needs). Rather, dandelions become a weed because they are ugly, aggressive, overabundant and out of control. There is a value system here that enlightens culture.

I live in a desert in which we have many, many natural grasses, but none of them typical lawn grass. Yet still, people often choose to grow a nice green lawn for various reasons, all of which requires a lot of effort. Lush green grass really does not thrive with little water and long, hot days. Instead, a cultural value has been placed upon the environment here. We value the cool, green, nicely trimmed lawn, but not wild grasses which grow tall and seed rapidly. What reasons can we give for this illogical behavior?

Some of Wittgenstein’s words on the power of language come to mind. In his Philosophical Investigations (#491), he writes, “Not: ‘without language we could not communicate with one another’ - but for sure: without language we cannot influence other people in such-and-such ways; cannot build roads and machines, etc. And also: without the use of speech and writing people could not communicate.” In other words, whether we know it or not, language influences our decisions. Why do we have grass in our yards? Because we don’t want to live among the weeds.

Wittgenstein continues (in #499), “To say ‘This combination of words makes no sense’ excludes it from the sphere of language and thereby bounds the domain of language. But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and that of another begins; and so on. So if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for.” Language, structured by grammar, is a sort of game which enables us to “play” on the same field. I want to emphasize Wittgenstein’s words that language draws boundaries, but doesn’t clearly state why the boundary exists.

This is important in parsing everyday speech where one can rely on a metaphor to make universal meaning. That meaning, however, is not universal, it just seems universal. Returning to our example, we cannot all agree on types and styles of weeds. We do not pull the same things out of our yards, some of us refer to sage and mint as weeds, while others let these grow. Are the words “weed” and “dandelion” synonymous? If I speak of weeds (and not dandelions, for example), am I stating something explicitly? If so, what? This example highlights differences between regions and cultures, but also difference in the term itself. It also highlights the fact that the mere idea of “weed” is useful in the English language. It fits into Wittgenstein’s game because it draws a boundary.

The idea of “weed” is useful in another way also. It clarifies a recent move away from a more classical theory of forms. In classical theory, categories were thought to be independent of individual human preferences. It was assumed that the form of a thing was also its essence. However, when discussing weeds, I am hard-pressed to find a universal form. Instead, this is a category that more closely resembles George Lakoff’s research into protoype theory. In Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, he writes that prototype theory “suggests that human categorization is essentially a matter of both human experience and imagination – of perception, motor activity, and culture on the one hand, and of metaphor, metonymy, and mental imagery on the other” (8). Therefore, we can say something benign like “He grows like a weed” to indicate a child has grown quickly. Or, we can “weed a garden,” an action dedicated to the removal of unwanted things, or “weed out” the problems. While I have not thought through every weed-related example, I do see how those provided problematize classical categories. “Weed” itself is a haphazard collection of personal experience and emotion.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Swing and A Miss

August 24, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

How do algorithms know which options are right for you? They are purportedly a mathematical calculation based on personal tastes, previous preferences and your own interaction. I will use examples from Pandora and Netflix to express my meaning, but really, I could broaden this discussion to any number of entities. Also, I am using a very broad understanding of algorithms for this general discussion.

Recently, the song “Pachelbel Meets U2” popped onto my classical channel. Regardless of the song’s merits, however, I was immediately annoyed. I wanted this channel to be purely classical. For me, U2’s “With or Without You” came through so strongly that I could not focus on Pachelbel and it totally distracted me. I explain this only because it demonstrates taste’s incredible caprice. I like U2, I like Pachelbel, I like instrumentals of contemporary music, so, really, isn’t this just an example of me being picky? And I answer, yes! Of course, but isn’t that what taste is?! All I know is that I gave this song a thumbs down on my classical channel, for no really good reason. Sorry, Pandora, that was a swing and a miss.

My favorite category on Netflix is “Because You Watched.” This category bases suggestions off of something that you recently watched. These selections are not restricted to genre. In fact, they almost defy genre. Sometimes it links by actor, or comments by other viewers. And Netflix has nothing to lose with this process. The more content they recommend, the better for them. In fact, all of the companies that invest in complex algorithms have everything to gain. And consumers react by giving them data that they need to run the algorithms. If Pandora throws in instrumentals to my classical, and I vote thumbs-down, then Pandora responds with another selection. It also simultaneously removes this song (and perhaps some song group) from my category.

Broadly defined by Merriam-Webster, algorithms are a “procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation.” Could that also be a definition of taste? There are many reasons that I might remove something from a playlist. Here are only a handful:

1] I don’t like the song

2] it doesn’t fit my current mood

3] I like it, but it is outside of the station’s intended purpose

4] I don’t like U2 and/or Pachelbel

5] I don’t like mixing genres

6] I don’t like remakes

7] I don’t like pianos or guitars

So, how does any mathematical equation break this nonsense down into bits of actionable information? How could an algorithm match infinite experience? Netflix and Pandora answer this by including other people’s recommendations. So, perhaps you gave a thumbs up to a movie that happened to be in the science fiction genre. Instead of recommending only sci-fi movies, Netflix will populate a handful of sci-fi and also some random films based on what other people liked. So, if another person liked the sci-fi movie you just watched, you will probably see a recommendation that has nothing to do with science fiction. And this seemingly random selection comes from other people’s tastes. Netflix, Pandora and others gain a lot by incorporating this feature. The more you interact, the more accurately they recommend, but also the more user-specific data they gain, which reinforces the whole system.

Does this type of system function differently than, say, radio in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when top Billboard hits drove the radio songs that we all heard? Radio offered choice mainly by genre: country, Spanish, pop, etc. Though they did compile data, it pales in comparison to the amount of data that is available by these new devices. Radio offered music and we listened or not. I never thought twice about how many times I heard the Eagles or Michael Jackson on the radio. But now, I wonder why my Pandora Spanish station continues to play songs by Latin artists in English. Why are the ads in English, whereas my friends’ ads are in Spanish? I wonder if my behavior prompts Pandora to believe that English is my first language.

As we invite these devices into our homes and lives, it is worth truly thinking about taste. (Per a previous post, taste according to Merriam-Webster is: “a] critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation b] manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation.”) Why does Pandora (or any service) recommend something to you specifically? What do they know about you and are they making the critical judgments for you? I do not ask this because I am worried about some cyber conspiracy (although I’m sure there is data to support that too). But rather, I am worried about how taste interacts with culture. How individualized is the Pandora community and does it in any way reflect community as we currently define it?

With constantly changing technology, I wonder if something is being mistakenly hidden, missed or suppressed. I go back to the idea that Pandora thinks my first language is English, though I have given no data to support this. The algorithm seems to be making critical judgments about me, not just my music.

To read more posts about about taste, try these.

Taste defined in art and music

Taste according to Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.