Linkage 4/15: TEDxUChicago, Chomsky Wrong?, Big Bangs

tedxuchicagoTED Comes to Campus

This weekend, the students of the University of Chicago are putting together a local edition of the renowned TED conference called TEDxUChicago. The theme, “Reinventing the Life of the Mind,” nicely blends the goals of TED and the University, the idea-sharing mission of the conference sutured to the intellectual spirit of our campus. Among the talks taking place at the Reynolds Club this Sunday are a few UChicago scientists: paleontologist and educator Paul Sereno (speaking on the topic of “Art In Science”), psychologist and child language expert Susan Goldin-Meadow (“What Our Hands Can Tell Us About Our Minds”), and student speaking contest winner Bruno Cabral (“The Life of the Mind Lived Through Noise”), an undergraduate working in the laboratory of psychologist Howard Nusbaum. Other speakers include Mark Inglis, the first double amputee to climb Mount Everest, Jonathan Greenblatt, the former CEO of GOOD magazine, and cybernetics expert Kevin Warwick giving probably the talk with the coolest title: “The Last Remaining Hurdles to Cyborg Technology.” Tickets are still for sale on the TEDxUChicago website, but if you can’t make it down to Hyde Park, the talks will be webcast live at the UChicago Facebook page.

The Rules of Language

Last week, the Joseph P. Kennedy Intellectual and Developmental Diabetes Research Center held a symposium called “Variations in Language Learning,” a series of talks about how languages are acquired by children, adults, and cultures. Elissa Newport, a professor of brain & cognitive sciences and linguistics at the University of Rochester, presented fascinating data on the concept of “statistical learning,” the theory that the brain uses mathematical tricks to learn the arcane rules of a new language. To test this idea, Newport and her colleagues played a made-up language of nonsense syllables for 20 minutes (!) to volunteers, showing that combinations of syllables that show up more frequently (such as “dutaba” or “babupu”) are eventually perceived as “words” by the listener. The researchers also went on to show that children are better at this “statistical learning” than adults when confronted with a new language, offering an explanation for why languages are easier to pick up when learned at a younger age.

The idea of a universal foundation for learning and developing language echoes the “universal grammar” theories of Noam Chomsky and others, if peripherally so – Newport’s experiments showing that the same statistical learning can be used for tones and visual sequences implies that it’s a universal learning mechanism, not specific to language. But a new phylogenetic analysis of the world’s languages appearing in Nature this week argues against innate rules for language, demonstrating deep grammatical differences between “families” of languages go against the idea of a universal human grammar. Most linguists seem skeptical or underwhelmed about the result, and the debate smacks of a false dichotomy, with the truth about language development less a battle between cognition and culture than a combination of the two forces. Discover, the LA Times’ Amina Khan, and Ars Technica’s John Timmer all weigh in on the study.


A UChicago public policy grad fights tuberculosis in India with financial incentives and technology. The organization, called Operation ASHA, has teamed up with Microsoft to develop software that makes sure patients complete their antibiotic treatment, an important step in preventing the formation of drug-resistant bacteria. Sounds like a clever strategy to fight many of the problems revealed in this great New Yorker article from last fall on TB in India.

If you missed Martin Rees’ University of Chicago Brinson Lecture at the Art Institute Monday, WBEZ and Gabriel Spitzer have archived the audio from the talk here.

Congratulations to UChicago President Robert Zimmer for being nominated for the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation!

Scientists theorize that some dinosaurs were nocturnal species, active at night. How in the world would you figure that out from a fossil? Lars Schmitz at Ecomorph explains.

It’s not quite properly up on iTunesU yet, but you can secretly subscribe to the Medical Center podcast, Bench to Bedside, by pasting the following link into Advanced > Subscribe To Podcast in your iTunes program: There’s a new episode up this week: enjoy!

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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