More and less.

I bring to your attention, once again, the Transition, as currently featured in the Oven Glove news.  While I have my doubts as to just how roadworthy this plane would be in ‘bad weather’, particularly in icy or stormy conditions, it’s still awesome.

Also awesome is an article that recently came to my attention about the Pirahã.  Of course you say it like pee-da-HAN, but who really looks at the letters in a word, anyway?  Certainly not THESE Amazonians.  Considering that they don’t have letters.  Or art.  Or MATH (that one’s for you, Alex).  From my brief days of teaching language, I know how important it is to be able to work from shared concepts – concrete nouns, pantomimed action verbs, visible adjectives.  But what if these concepts are not shared, or cannot be communicated?  What then?  What happens when  a culture with words for ‘one’, ‘two’, and ‘many’ cannot conceive of or count to three, even in a language different from the native one? How do you communicate?

There is some debate as to whether the term for our number one is really a number at all – it could simply mean ‘a small amount’ or ‘few’, as opposed to the words for ‘some’ (two) or ‘many’.  The only thing that is real is the concrete, the immediate, the observable.  There is no recursion in sentences, no abstraction in terms, no hypothesizing or future planning.  What decoration or art there might be is solely for immediate purposes – the model of a plane just seen carelessly tossed away once the actual plane has left, or some other instant expression of an event or action.  Nothing is meant to last.  What is emotion, in this context?  Is it too abstract, or something transitory that is very real in the moment?  In a language where stress and tone matters more than syllable, vowel, or consonant, where singing possibly says more than saying, what does music mean?

Finally, in this article on linguistics and other wonders of the world, I was laughing at a Boston reference – Noam Chomsky as interviewed by Spare Change news.  Next time you see one of those guys asking for a dollar, just think about it.  You never know what gems might be on the inside.

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Armchair science.

With the advent of the popularity of science, a variety of amateurs set of into the field to ‘discover’.  Amateur archaeologists destroyed countless cultural sites and shipped relics and bones to home museums.  Amateur biologists drove certain species (dutifully observed and collected) to the verge of extinction.  Amateur medical professionals brought disease more than they cured it.  To combat such errors methods were refined, and as technology marched forward, new more advanced tools were found to take the place of more bumbling human agents.  But despite tremendous technological advances, the world remains reliant on individual error checking and observation.  The human mind is still the most potent weapon we possess to filter and analyze the unknown.

Take the example of Alice Kober and the decipherment of Linear B.  Sure, guesses were made about what the script might be, and that its form might be linked to inflection.  Sure, certain reoccurring sign patterns were noted.  But it took a keen human eye and hundreds of categorical notecards to discern the real patterns of the script.  Kober (a woman, mind you, well-trained but serving as the assistant to another archeologist) was the one who had the time and patience to hunt down and analyze these patterns, without the drama of fieldwork or the assistance of advanced modeling platforms. Here is armchair science as it’s supposed to be – a discerning mind applied to a problem or question, without the need for recognition or success – to investigate the question is enough.

Today astronomy has brought us another example of a ‘real’ armchair scientist int he form of one Hanny van Arkel.  As a part of the Galaxy Zoo project, she has been spending her time and brainpower pouring over old archived photographs of galaxies far, far away.  The purpose of the project was to allow for quick categorization of each galaxy as spiral, elliptical, or something else, and involved amateurs to free time up for the main researchers.  It is the human element to perception (currently better than computer analysis) that allowed van Arkel to pick out an anomaly, currently being called a ‘cosmic ghost’ for lack of a clearer understanding of what we’re looking at, in one of the photos just below a bright galaxy.  They think the ‘ghost’ is a hot cloud of gas illuminated by a long-dead quasar even further away, but more research is to be done in the area.

What does this say for all of us?  As my sister, Shelly, likes to say, ‘use your brain’.  We are, all of us, still able of contributing something to the collective understanding of the world.  The human mind (or brain, if you prefer) is a tremendously complex wonder with an amazing power to analyze, categorize, and intuit.  As such, we are each the best tool possible for making something great, if we but use that power to question for the question’s sake, rather than the answer’s.