Thursday, March 01, 2007

Recursion discovered at New Scientist

New Scientist magazine generally does a very good job of reporting science news. They also have a section called Feedback in which people tend to send in random amusing stories, many of which have to do with language. Take, Olaf Lipinski's story about his new shirt:
The other day he bought a shirt with black and white stripes. He was delighted with it until he read the label which says: "Wash dark colours separately".
These are all well and good, but back on Jan. 20, there was the following:

Understanding understanding

READER Stan Courtney tell us that while browsing through Scientific American he came across this in an article about autism: "For neuroscientists, this finding... represents a dramatic change in the way we understand the way we understand."

Courtney says he cannot remember seeing any other sentence like this, in which a repeated phrase actually makes sense. Has anyone else?

The follow up appeared in the Feb. 10 edition:

The way we understand the way we understand

WRITING in response to Stan Courtney's comment on repeated phrases that make sense, such as "the way we understand the way we understand" (20 January), Stewart Haywood tells us: "I watched my daughter standing in front of a mirror this morning, looking at herself looking at herself."

...David Squire's simple submission "This sentence contains 'this sentence contains'" comes as something of a relief.

Many other readers offered their own versions of this linguistic oddity, but space prevents us publishing them all, so let us conclude with the wisdom of the physicist Richard Feynman, who was there before us in this, as he was in so many things. Tim Cowell was the first of many to draw our attention to a statement made by Feynman when he was a student, which went something like this: "I wonder why. I wonder why. I wonder why I wonder. I wonder why I wonder why I wonder why I wonder!" He repeated this to himself over and over again, apparently, as a way of sending himself off to sleep.

All of which makes you wonder: is this a phenomenon that has just caught the attention of one of the world's leading science news magazines? Do they really know so little about language and linguistics that they are unaware how fundamental the idea of recursion is? They have, after all, written about it before and here. Admittedly, this is a special limited type of recursion, but it's still pretty obvious, isn't it? I mean, my five-year-old son once told me a "story about a story about a story about a story..." and found it terrifically funny.

Can you imagine somebody writing in and saying, "I've recently noticed that light behaves both as a wave and as a particle"? But then I guess we expect people to know more about physics than about linguistics, a fact that Mark Liberman is always lamenting.

More here
A particularly disgusting (I'm not kidding!) example of this type of recursion is here (click at your own risk), other related Language Log posts being here and here. Escher made much use of recursion in his drawings, including the special case of the strange loop as illustrated in drawing hands. Finally, GNU is a recursive acronym which means GNU is not UNIX.

1 comment:

John Cowan said...

The song "The Colors of the Wind" from the Disney film Pocahontas has a nice repetition in the lyrics:

     But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger,
     You'll learn things you never knew you never knew.