Field of Science

New ideas

When I was named, my father worried that the name my parents were giving me was too unusual. He didn't know anybody named "Josh."

Steven Pinker discusses this phenomenon in terms of child naming in his most recent book, The Stuff of Thought, having the exact same experience as me; his parents thought "Steven" was a fresh new name.

This doesn't happen just with names. A couple weeks ago, I was talking with a couple friends at the excellent Semiproductivity in Grammar workshop at Tufts about a problem we seem to share. On of the friends, who works on computational modeling, had discovered another research group with a similar model. Both the friends were concerned about the fact that Bayesian-style computational modeling world has been getting a little too crowded. Myself, I recently entered the world of pragmatics research with the idea that is was relatively unexplored only to discover that many, many other researchers have had the same idea.

Of course, this goes back a long way. Darwin and Wallace arrived at the theory of natural selection independently. Something similar happened with Newton, Leibniz and calculus.

So why does it happen? Certainly some people have come up with some entertaining anthromorphic theories in which fate has a direction or it is the universe itself pushing us in one direction or another, or perhaps humans are all connected at some psychic level. Another, less extravagant possibility, is that humans are fundamentally similar and react similarly to the same environments.

In terms of computational modeling, early in the decade it was clear that connectionism had run out of speed. Yet there were many researchers who like the computational approach. Bayesian formalisms were not well-known, but were well-known enough for those interested to come across them, and they offered a good alternative to connectionism. Given that there were many people looking, it's not surprising a number found it.

This brings up a general point. Trends often occur when many people are all dissatisfied with the options available and there is a prominent available alternative that isn't too radically different, but which is just different enough. In the 1980s, boys names starting with the letter J were very popular in America. A parent might be looking for a new "J" name and stumble across Joshua, a once-popular but now under-used name. It seems fresh and new but still fits the general milieu of liking J-names. Unfortunately, there are only so many J names to go around, so many parents ended up finding the same ones.

There's a very good chapter on this phenomenon in Pinker's book, which I strongly recommend.

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