Field of Science

GamesWithWords on Scientific American

Over the last week, has published two articles by me. The most recent, "Citizen Scientists decode meaning, memory and laughter," discusses how citizen science projects -- science projects involving collaborations between professional scientists and amateur volunteers -- are now being used to answer questions about the human mind.

Citizen Science – projects which involve collaboration between professional scientists and teams of enthusiastic amateurs — is big these days. It’s been great for layfolk interested in science, who can now not just read about science but participate in it. It has been great for scientists, with numerous mega-successes like Zooniverse and Foldit. Citizen Science has also been a boon for science writing, since readers can literally engage with the story.
However, the Citizen Science bonanza has not contributed to all scientific disciplines equally, with many projects in zoology and astronomy but less in physics and the science of the mind. It is maybe no surprise that there have been few Citizen Science projects in particle physics (not many people have accelerators in their back yards!), but the fact that there has been very little Citizen Science of the mind is perhaps more remarkable.

The article goes on to discuss three new mind-related citizen science projects, including our own VerbCorner project.

The second, "How to understand the deep structures of language," describes some really exciting work on how to explain linguistic universals -- work that was conducted by colleagues of mine at MIT.
In an exciting recent paper, Ted Gibson and colleagues provide evidence for a design-constraint explanation of a well-known bias involving case endings and word order. Case-markers are special affixes stuck onto nouns that specify whether the noun is the subject or object (etc.) of the verb. In English, you can see this on pronouns (compare "she talked with her"), but otherwise, English, like most SVO languages (languages where the typical word order is Subject, Verb, Object) does not mark case. In contrast, Japanese, like most SOV languages (languages where the typical word order is Subject, Object, Verb) does mark case, with -wa added to subjects and -o added to direct objects. "Yasu saw the bird" is translated as "Yasu-wa tori-o mita" and "The bird saw Yasu" is translated as "Tori-wa Yasu-o mita." The question is why there is this relationship between case-marking and SOV word order.
The article ran in the Mind Matters column, which invites scientists to write about the paper that came out in the last year that they are most excited about. It was very easy for me to choose this one.


Anonymous said...

Both your links lead to the same citizen science article.

GamesWithWords said...

So it does. Fixed.