Field of Science

Everlasting Love

I just got back data from a survey in which we asked people to estimate how long different emotions are likely to last. We'll use this information to design a future experiment looking at how people expect emotions to be encoded in language. In the meantime, what struck me is that of all the emotions we asked about, the one that people expected to last the longest was "being head-over-heels in love". Which is awesome.

(Image courtesy of Faizal Sharif)

New Experiment: The Vocab Quiz

Curious how good your vocabulary is? I just posted a new experiment that will tell you. There are 32 questions. At the end, you'll see your score and how it compares with others who have done the experiment. This should be a fairly hard test. I piloted it on around 40 people, and only a few managed to get all the questions right. Then I made it harder. You can find the experiment here.

What is the purpose of the experiment?

We are interested in why some people have better vocabularies than others. So before you take the test, you'll answer some questions about your background, such as your age, level of education, and birth order. The predictions for age and level of education are probably fairly obvious. The predictions for birth order are less clear. Some researchers would predict that eldest children will have better vocabularies (they spent more time with their parents and so got a jump start). Others would predict that the youngest would have better vocabularies (they had extra teachers in the home!). Still other researchers would argue that birth order (being the oldest or youngest, etc.) should have no effect on vocabulary, because they argue that pretty much nothing is affected by birth order.

We are particularly interested in people for whom English is a second language. What factors lead some people to easily acquire a second language and others not?

Take the Vocab Quiz.

New Experiment: The Language & Memory Test

There is a close relationship between language and memory, since of course whenever you use words and grammar, you have to access your memory for those words and that grammar. If you couldn't remember anything, you couldn't learn language to begin with.

The relationship between language and memory is not well understood, partly because they tend to be studied by different people, though there are a few labs squarely interested in the relationship between language and memory, such as the Brain and Language Lab at Georgetown University.

This week, I posted a new experiment, "The Language & Memory Test", which explores the relationship between memory and language. The experiment consists of two components. One is a memory test. At the end, you will see your score and how it compares with other people who took the test. This test is surprisingly hard for how simple it seems.

In the other part, you will try to learn to use some new words. We'll be studying the relationship between different aspects of your memory performance and how you learn these new words. As always, there will be a bit more explanation at the end of the experiment. When the experiment is done and the results are known, there will be a full description of them and what we learned here at the blog and at

Try the Language & Memory test here.

New Experiment: Collecting Fancy Art

Over the last few years, we've run a lot of experiments online at, resulting so far in four publications, with a number of others currently under review at various journals. Most of these have experiments have focused on how people process and interpret language. I just posted a new experiment (Collecting Fancy Art) that is more squarely focused on learning language. Language learning experiments are somewhat tricky to do online, since they tend to take longer than the 5-10 minute format of online experiments, but they are important.

One of the most salient truths about language is that language has to be learned. This is clearly pretty hard, or other animals would be able to do it and we'd already have computers that were pretty good at language. But just how the learning process happens is a bit of a mystery, partly because language is a complex, interconnected system. When you learn one word, it affects how you use other words.

In this experiment, you will simultaneously learn the meanings of three different words. We're interested in seeing how your understanding of these words develops. As always, you'll learn more about the experiment at the end. And check back here in the future: After the experiment is completed, the results will be posted here.

The experiment is called "Collecting Fancy Art". You can find it here.

Lab Notebook: Social Networking

The problem with websites is they quickly become obsolete. A few years ago, I updated the website to make it easier to share pages, adding buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Digg, and Reddit. A little while ago, I noticed that the Digg button wasn't working anymore. Then the Twitter button disappeared. 

I just updated the website, switching from native buttons for social networking systems to ShareThis. ShareThis has the advantage of incorporating every social networking system you've heard of and a bunch you haven't heard of (I've put Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and email up front, but by clicking on the ShareThis button, users can choose from dozens of networks). 

Fieldofscience (the network this blog is a part of) has been using ShareThis for a couple years. However, it went through several periods where it wasn't working. Periodically, it would have memory failures, and posts that had once had dozens of likes suddenly went to zero. But lately it seems much more stable, so I'm trying it out.

The disadvantage is that every page says that it hasn't been liked by anybody, which isn't great advertising for the website. (*UPDATE* We've got a few shares now on some of the pages.) I hope this changes quickly.

The $64,000 question is, of course, whether this update changes the overall amount of traffic to the website. It's been averaging around 2,000 visitors/month for a couple years now. That's very respectable for a research website. However, many of the experiments now running (like the Mind Reading Quotient and Finding Explanations) require large numbers of participants, and they would really benefit from an uptick in traffic.

Who you gonna believe: E. O. Wilson or common sense?

I was planning a post on E. O. Wilson's recent flight of fancy, "Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math", in which he tells potential future scientists that knowing math isn't all that important, but it turns out Jeremy Fox has already said everything I was going to say, only better. It's a long post, though, so here are some key passages:
Wilson’s claim that deep interest in a subject, combined with deep immersion in masses of data, is sufficient, because hey, it worked for Charles Darwin, is utter rubbish. First of all, just because it worked for Darwin (or Wilson) doesn’t mean it will work for you, and just because it worked in the 19th century doesn’t mean it will work in the 21st. If for no other reason than that there are plenty of people out there, in every field, who not only have a deep interest in the subject and an encyclopedic knowledge of the data, but who know a lot of mathematics and statistics.

Wilson claims that strong math skills are relevant only a few disciplines, like physics. Elsewhere, great science is a matter of “conjuring images and processes by intuition”... I’m sure Wilson is describing his own approach here, and it’s worked for him. But I have to say, it’s surprising to find someone as famous for his breadth of knowledge as E. O. Wilson generalizing so unthinkingly from his own example. I wonder what his late collaborator Robert MacArthur would think of the notion that intuition alone is enough. I wonder what Bill Hamilton would think. Or R. A. Fisher. Or J. B. S. Haldane. Or Robert May. Or John Maynard Smith. Or George Price. Or Peter Chesson. Or Dave Tilman. Or lots of other great ecologists and evolutionary biologists I could name off the top of my head. Would Wilson seriously argue that none of those people were great scientists, or that they never made any great discoveries, or that the great discoveries they made arose from intuition unaided by mathematics?
Meanwhile, over at Finding the Next Einstein, Jonathan Wai draws on his own research to argue that mathematics ability is key to success in a wide range of scientific fields (though these data are unfortunately correlational).

International Journal of Lousy Research

Jeffrey Beall's blacklist of "predatory open-access journals" -- discussed in yesterday's New York Times -- provides evidence for my long-standing suspicion of any journal named "International Journal of ..." There probably are some good journals named "International Journal of...", but I don't know of any off-hand. And there seem to be an awful lot of bad ones, probably for good reason: An internationally-recognized journal doesn't have to say so. So almost by definition a journal that has to call itself "International Journal of" is probably not a well-known journal.

In general, nearly every journal on the list has some location in its name, such as South Asian Journal of Mathematics, which doubles down by referring to itself on its home page as an "international journal". Again, there are, of course, good journals with region-specific names. But there don't seem to be many. I'm less sure of the reason for this one.

[Future Post: Explaining why universities that market themselves as "The Harvard of" some region are frequently not even the most prestigious school in that region.]

Laying to rest an old myth about Chinese

I just got back from my second research trip to Taiwan in three years (with another planned soon!) and fourth trip overall. As always, I had a great time and ate as much beef noodle soup as I could manage.

As always, I spent a couple months beforehand brushing up my reading and writing. This isn't something I have to do before trips to Spain or Russia. A few hours spent learning Spanish or Russian orthography, and you are set for life. As soon as I blink, I forget how to read and write Chinese. This is because, as is well known, rather than a couple dozen phonetic symbols, Chinese employs thousands of easily-confusable characters which, if you don't use for a while, you end up confusing.

This isn't just a problem for foreigners. Students in Taiwan (and China or Japan, I assume) continue investing significant amounts of time into learning to read and write additional characters well through secondary school. This raises the question of why Chinese-speakers don't just adopt a phonetic writing system?

Problems with a Chinese phonetic writing system

The argument one often hears is that Chinese has so many homophones (words that sounds like), that if you wrote them all the same way, there would be so much ambiguity that it would be impossible to read. The character system solves this by having different characters for different words, even ones that sound alike.

In the last century, when switching to a phonetic system was proposed, a scholar illustrated this problem with the following poem, which reads something like this:
Shi shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi, shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi. Shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi shi. Shi shi shi shi.
As written, this is incomprehensible. Only if you write it in characters
the meaning becomes clear:
A poet named Shi lived in a stone house and liked to eat lion flesh and he vowed to eat ten of them. He used to go to the market in search of lions and one day chanced to see ten of them there. Shi killed the lions with arrows and picked up their bodies carrying them back to his stone house. His house was dripping with water so he requested that his servants proceed to dry it. Then he began to try to eat the bodies of the ten lions. It was only then he realized that these were in fact ten lions made of stone. Try to explain the riddle.
Problems with this argument

This argument sounds compelling until you realize that what is being claimed is that you can't understand a Chinese sentence based on its sound alone. This means that not only is it impossible to understand phonetically-written Chinese, it is impossible to understand spoken Chinese (which, like phonetically-written Chinese, doesn't have any characters to help disambiguate similar-sounding words). Since a billion people speak Mandarin Chinese every day, there must be a problem with this argument!

There are a few. First of all, I wrote the poem phonetically ignoring the five Chinese tones. Like many languages, Chinese uses intonation phonetically -- an 'i' with a rising tone is different from an 'i' with a falling tone. Writing a tonal language without tones is like writing English without vowels -- much harder to read. Similarly, the phonetic writing above does not have any breaks between words, making it much harder to read (imaginewritingEnglishwithoutspacesbetweenwords). True, written Chinese doesn't mark word boundaries, but then it has all the extra information encoded in the characters to help with any ambiguity.

Second, this poem uses very archaic Chinese (different vocabulary and different grammar than modern Mandarin). It's not clear how many people would understand the poem spoken aloud. Wikipedia gives a nice translation of the poem into modern Mandarin, which involves many different sounds, not just 'shi'.

The most important problem is that there actually is a perfectly good phonetic system for writing Chinese. Actually, there are several, but the most common is pinyin. People can and do write entire texts in pinyin.

Why care? 

Why go to the effort of debunking this myth? This often comes up in arguments over whether the Chinese should adopt a new writing system, but that's not really my concern. Very often, there is a tendency to believe that different cultures and languages are much more different from one another than they are. One hears about strange aspects of other languages without even pausing to think about the fact that your own language has many of those same features. The writing systems of English and Chinese are actually alike in many ways (both are partially phonetic and partially semantic -- a topic for a different post). I can only speak for myself, but the more I learn about a given language, usually the less foreign it seems. Which is a fact worth thinking about.