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Preview: From the Editors - Short Sharp Science

From the Editors - Short Sharp Science

A New Scientist blog

Updated: 2013-01-21T18:21:32Z


Eskimo argument is a snowstorm in a teacup


The linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum criticised our feature "Are there really 50 Eskimo words for snow?" on his Language Log blog. Read the author's response

David Robson, features editor

Discussions of how many snow words there are in Eskimo languages still inflame the passions of some linguists, as is clear from Geoffrey K. Pullum's recent post on the Language Log blog, responding to our feature article, "Are there really 50 Eskimo words for snow?"

Still, I think Pullum's criticisms of my article are mostly unfounded. For example, he took exception to my statement that the anthropologist Franz Boas "ignited the claim that Eskimos have dozens, or even hundreds, of words for snow". Yet Pullum's own 1989 essay on the topic states that "the original source is Franz Boas' introduction to The Handbook of North American Indians (1911)". (Incidentally, I can't find a record of this particular volume, but I assume that Pullum was referring to the Handbook of American Indian Languages, which was published in 1911 and has been cited as the original source by other linguists.)

Needless to say, I fully respect Pullum's desire to defend his side of this linguistic debate, which highlights the difficulties of comparing distantly related languages. As I pointed out in the article, Eskimo languages are polysynthetic, meaning that you can add lots of suffixes to a word stem to encapsulate a complex meaning usually represented in large phrase in English. (The example I gave is the base angyagh (boat) from Siberian Yupik, which becomes angyaghllangyugtuqlu to mean "what's more, he wants a bigger boat").

When considering these languages, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between independent words reflecting commonly accepted categories of snow, and derivations that are more like a descriptive flourish. Citing a linguist who has attempted to avoid those idiosyncratic coinages, Pullum had previously concluded that their list of snow words is "short, not remarkably different in size from the list in English" - a view he virulently defends in his blog.

Yet the more recent attempts to document the Eskimo snow terminology, which have taken an equally careful approach to chart only meaningful distinctions, find evidence for a much richer vocabulary in some (although not all) Eskimo languages. To quote from one of the recent papers by Igor Krupnik at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center: "Contrary to Pullum's much-reiterated claim based on the comment by Woodbury (1991), the English vocabulary for snow and related phenomena is clearly inferior to those recorded in several Eskimo/Inuit languages and dialects."

My article, although light-hearted in tone, was based on an extensive and careful reading of this research and many in-depth conversations with the relevant linguists and anthropologists. For anyone who would like a more in-depth discussion of the history of the "snow words" meme and the value of the recent research, I would thoroughly recommend Piotr Cichocki and Marcin Kilarski's 2010 article on the subject, "On 'Eskimo Words for Snow': The life cycle of a linguistic misconception" (Historiographia Linguistica, vol 37 , p 341).

The big bang contained in a tweet (or ten)


Tom Simonite presents the best attempts to meet our challenge of defining the big bang in a single twitter message Tom Simonite, online technology editorLast week we challenged Twitter users to explain the big bang in a single tweet. We saw more than 500 responses before we called time, although people are still tweeting away on the #sci140 tag. Quite a few tweeters played it straight, taking on the formidable task of summarising the physics in just the 133 characters left after including the tag. Two entries fitted in the equation for Hubble's law, describing how galaxies are moving apart as the universe continues to expand. Others preferred to describe the epic event in words and images, although only one thought laterally enough to tweet a hand-drawn picture. There was controversy as to what the big bang might have sounded like: a boom, bang, kaboom or tweeeet? (The answer, incidentally, can be found in this classic New Scientist article.)God was also invoked frequently, although contributors disagreed over the precise form of divine intervention that effected the big bang. Sneezing, hiccuping, farting, having a temper tantrum or and simple boredom were all posited.And some quoted, rather than created. Variants on Terry Pratchett's line that: "In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded," were popular, as was Douglas Adams' "in the beginning the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move."We've scraped all the tweets into a document (.doc format) if you want to appreciate the full range of ingenuity on display, but here, in no particular order, are our ten favourite attempts:Timeless energy, / all dressed up, no place to go: / had to create space. / - #BigBang #haiku #sci140 - haiQGod said delB=0 etc, & then light (sym breaking), separation light from darkness (recombination), man created from dirt (evolution) #sci140 - dmadance#sci140 starburst, molecule, amino acid, protein, cell development, cell division, sex, technology, war, religion, OK magazine. - jonotrumpeto@newscientist #sci140 Antimatter and matter duke it out. Matter wins 1 billion and one to 1 billion. The matter left expands and makes us. - zeroentropy@newscientist .<∞ #sci140 - yanikproulx#sci140 A place for everything, and everything in one place. Then -- kaboom, everything all over the place. - tui4@newscientist The Big Bang: the moment the universe vanishes when extrapolating its expansion backwards into the past #sci140 - hubi1857For t<0 some say there was no matter, others say it does not matter. For t>0 its a matter of life and death - as a matter of fact #sci140 - thebeerhunteran argument between the 9th and 10th dimensions overspilled into the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th. #sci140 - AlexStavrinidesThe Big Bang: Basically a ballooning of bosons, belatedly bloating into our beautiful universe. Brought to you by the letter 'B'. #sci140 - CoyoteTrax Thanks to everyone who participated. Keep following our Twitter stream for more challenges! [...]

Update: New Scientist house rules on commenting


We are changing the rules governing user commenting on the site to encourage more lively and informative posts. See the new policy and some friendly dos and don'ts Kat Austen, letters and comments editor

Since the first posts in the summer of 2007, the comments section of New Scientist has quickly become a vibrant community, with a great many people using the feature as a forum for the exchange of ideas about the scientific topics examined in our articles.

Many of our readers and commenters are experts in their fields, and have a wide-ranging knowledge. They add a great deal of additional information and insight, which we greatly appreciate. We think it adds to the quality of the site.

However, we have been receiving an increasing number of complaints about the repetitive exchanges on some topics. So, after careful consideration we have decided to adjust the house rules. We hope the new policies will encourage more lively and informative posts. We would ask that readers understand that debates about the fundamental assumptions made in writing an article, such as the science behind evolution or global warming, are unlikely to be resolved in the comments section of a popular website.

Such arguments get in the way of the lively, on-topic debates about contemporary science news and opinions that are the purpose of the comments section. Therefore, in future such comments will be removed - unless these broader issues are specifically addressed in the article.

We've made the changes in the hope of promoting more varied debate on the site, and avoiding conversational quagmires and flamewars. You can take a look at the new policy here, and have a read of our new handy hints for commenting.

We know no comments system can please all users all the time. We want to provide a more welcoming and rewarding experience for our users, so that everyone can benefit from the community's collective knowledge, wit and experience - and that's why we're making these changes. So, please comment below if you'd like to give us feedback about the new policy.

Commenting on New Scientist: house rules update


New Scientist has been receiving a growing number of complaints about off-topic comment threads on the site. So that there is no confusion, we have made a minor change to the house rules in order to make this more explicit... New Scientist has been receiving a growing number of complaints about off-topic comment threads on the site.

There has always been the facility to report comments as off topic, and it has always been the case that comment threads should relate to the content of the article under which they are posted. So that there is no confusion, we have made a minor change to the house rules (see them here) in order to make this more explicit.

We are currently investigating different mechanisms for dealing with the comments so that our readers get the most out of, and we'll keep you posted on any changes in policy.

Kat Austen, letters and comments editor

An adventure in molecular gastronomy


To eat at avant-garde restaurant elBulli, two million people apply for 8000 places per year. Roger Highfield was one of the lucky few... Roger Highfield, New Scientist editor

A meal at the best restaurant in the world is fascinating, expensive and, to say the least, hard to come by.

elBulli in Costa Brava, Spain, is only open from June to December, and then only for dinner. There's a small window of opportunity to book by email over a few days in October, prompting a flurry of obsequious reservation requests from millions of foodies to try delights such as gorgonzola moshi and floral candyfloss

If you win the gastro lottery, you end up in the nearby seaside resort of Roses and then, after a winding drive, in Ferran Adrià's gastronomic temple, overlooking a beautiful little bay. There's a quick introduction to the great man himself in his modernist kitchen - a stark, designer affair with clean, sharp lines.

There, a small army of chefs toils away. They make warm jellies from seaweed extracts. They adopt various industrial food processes, or use mass-market emulsifiers to make foams remain stiff. They vacuum-pack.They freeze-dry things. They use pipettes and distillers too to create Dali-esque dishes. In solid, homely dining rooms, with tiled floors and white walls, the food comes in bite-sized courses. They are delivered with military precision, along with advice on how to make the most of each morsel. We lost count of the courses - certainly more than 30 - which were steadily delivered at intervals dictated by how fast we ate.

The team goes on pilgrimages to try new cuisines - South America being the latest destination (Japan was the last) - and the result, honed in their "lab" in Barcelona, is original, and far from Spanish, in the sense that it's not located in history, or region, or the latest culinary fashion.

The combinations of flavours and textures and methods are striking, often astonishing and sometimes downright odd. But never dull. At the end you have spent more than £200 each on delights such as suckling pig tail and gnocchi of polenta with coffee and saffron yuba (dried tofu skin).

There was a dish of rabbit brains and oysters, black sesame sponge cake with miso, tagliatelle that turned out to be frozen shavings of foie gras, peas that were in fact green pearls of agar, gnocchi made from jellified egg yolk, and extraordinary wild citrus flowers pressed in candy floss. Words can't really do the flavours and textures justice.

At the end came a plate filled with twigs, "sand" of pressed powders, and freeze-dried chocolate "leaves," like a forest floor in autumn. Finally a waiter sets down a chest and you open one hidden drawer after another to reveal a different sweet treat.

The elBulli experience is different from that delivered by British molecular gastronaut and kindred spirit, Heston Blumenthal. There's more of an overt scientific flourish in Blumenthal's Fat Duck - headphones, liquid nitrogen and so on - to deliver bigger, more straightforwardly hedonic courses.

In elBulli , you see a gastronomic guru at work. You won't adore every mouthful. There's no explanation of how that plump olive sitting before you was created from a sphere of gel containing essence of olive. But you will appreciate everything. It's marvellous. You are in the presence of a genius who intrigues, surprises and entices the senses.

Read an interview with elBulli head chef, Ferran Adrià

Best of blog posts 2008


We've rounded up some of our favourite blog posts of the year - from a nano-sized Barack Obama to calls for a 'Gaian dictator' to save the world. You can find them over on the main New Scientist site.... We've rounded up some of our favourite blog posts of the year - from a nano-sized Barack Obama to calls for a 'Gaian dictator' to save the world. You can find them over on the main New Scientist site.

The best comments of 2008


A lot of the most informative and entertaining discussion triggered by New Scientist can be found in the comments that you, our readers, leave below the articles. This year, you made us laugh about the LHC and talking robots, muse... A lot of the most informative and entertaining discussion triggered by New Scientist can be found in the comments that you, our readers, leave below the articles. This year, you made us laugh about the LHC and talking robots, muse about God, music and the brain, and reconsider interstellar spam. We've highlighted just a few of our favourite comments - after the jump. High-pitched particles When the Large Hadron Collider came online in September, it generated a huge wave of excitement and optimism. Then it was hit by a major helium leak, a 9-month repair schedule and a massive bill. Faced with this frustrating delay, many people took refuge in the best therapy: laughter. This remark by Chuck gave us the best mental image: "It must have been a fun afternoon; large amounts of helium vaporised and hundreds of Mickey Mouse voices screaming 'Shut it down! Shut it down!'" Apparently, it wasn't exactly like that. Scientific priest: The tortured relationship between science and religion was firmly in the spotlight this year, as an Italian university refused to let the pope speak at the opening of their academic year, and a fellow of the Royal Society was forced to resign over comments he made about how science teachers should deal with creationist children. One of the more interesting twists was the selection of Michael Heller, a Polish cosmologist and Catholic priest, for the Templeton Prize. Heller is a pretty fascinating character, and his thoughtful statements generated a lot of positive discussion. As well as interviewing Heller, our opinion editor Amanda Gefter blogged about the time she spent with him. Among the many responses was this one from Joe: "For a long time, I have thought that, had I been a religious person, my thinking would be as follows: 'If God created the universe, and gave us an inquisitive mind, it behoves us to study His universe. If Earth looks as if evolution has taken place, it behoves us to take it at face value.' I am glad to see a religious scholar come to the same conclusion." We might just print that out and stick it to our front door. Spamming space: In June, a snack food company became the proud sponsors of the first advertisement to be beamed into space. For six hours, radars transmitted an MPEG file of an ad for Doritos towards the Ursa Major constellation. You were not, on the whole, impressed. Snarky comments about "the first intergalactic spam" were legion, though one user going by the name None stuck up for the advertiser: "Good for Doritos though, that was more or less a donation to a group that needed it." But the definitive comment came from Phil, who turned the story on its head: "Interesting to speculate how we would feel if the first form of intelligent communication from another life-form decoded by SETI was a publicity slot. One can imagine, in time-honoured B-movie style, the President announcing a solemn message on the first 'contact', only to be followed by a jingle and a strange bite-sized cheesy morsel." Recursive comments: In October our reporter David Robson interviewed a chatbot called Elbot, which had managed to fool several human judges into thinking they were talking to another human - the latest step in the development of an artificial intelligence that could pass the famous Turing test. The conversation itself was pretty hilarious, with David and Elbot doing their best to bamboozle each other. The comments continued in the same vein: some of our readers posted their own comments to Elbot itself and posted its replies.The resulting conversation can only be described as ... strange. Overall, people weren[...]

This website looks different


New Scientist's website has a new design - showcasing what we believe is the best of our content, alongside what is most read and most commented on by the most important audience we have - you.After talking to thousands of... (image) New Scientist's website has a new design - showcasing what we believe is the best of our content, alongside what is most read and most commented on by the most important audience we have - you.

After talking to thousands of our readers and users, we have made some major changes to our website.

These are intended to bring the sheer joy and delight of New Scientist to even more people than ever before - with a clearer design, dual navigation by content type as well as topic, and an enhanced search function. Everything we previously had on the site is still here. For some time we have had image galleries, article commenting, we've had regular blogs and of course our sister websites providing content specifically organised around Space, Environment and Technology.

This is all still here. And it is all easily navigable from every page on the site.

Try it out, and use the commenting fields below to tell us what you think. We can't promise to change everything you don't like, but we will read everything you tell us, to try to make it even more right for you.

Have fun!

New Scientist webteam