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Upcoming events

NAPhCxii - 12th North American Phonology Conference 

May 12 - 13, 2023 (with a Satellite Workshop on May 14, 2023) 
The center is hosting the biennial conference on theoretical phonology, followed by a satellite workshop. For the updated conference program and registration, please see the NAPhCxii website

Past events

From rats to robots: closing the sensorimotor loop

Ada Lovelace is best known for her notes on the Analytical Engine of Charles Babbage. The engine is a machine that uses movement to compute the answers to mathematical equations. Now imagine a machine whose movements help compute its own next movement. Animals can be thought of as this type of machine. The nervous system of an animal takes as input the current sensory and motor state, and uses that information to compute the commands to be sent to the muscles to make the next movement. Viewed in this way, it becomes clear that the physical body of an animal – including the geometry and mechanics of its muscles and sensors – directly drives the evolution of its nervous system, and vice versa. An animal’s sensory and motor structures coevolve with its nervous system to enable it to survive within its particular ethological niche. In this talk I will first discuss the characteristics of the brain that make it so difficult to study. Why is it taking scientists so long to understand neural function? What’s the hold up? I will then describe our laboratory’s model system of choice: the rat vibrissal (whisker) system. We are using approaches in robotics, simulation, and neurophysiology to begin to understand the connections between sensing, movement, and perception.

#BlackLivesMatter → #OurLanguagesMatter

As a creolist who works on language and education for social justice, I continuously puzzle at the vast array of educators, activists, intellectuals, politicians, etc., who fail to realize that language rights are at the core of human rights. This puzzlement will take us to my native Haiti and other outposts of Empire where we can document spectacular violations of linguistic rights in the course of knowledge production and in the workings of human-rights organizations. We'll highlight the persistent incoherence in these patterns throughout history... Or perhaps there's a logic (a colonial racist logic?) to this apparent madness. In this talk, I'll take Haiti and Creolistics as twin case studies to try and understand the genesis of these human-rights violations as part of the history of colonization and slavery. Then I'll present one specific and concrete set of "direct actions" (à la Martin Luther King Jr.) that we linguists and educators can take toward a constructive forward-looking resolution of these violations. Here our case study is the MIT-Haiti Initiative where we're helping to usher a paradigm shift in the perception and use of Haitian Creole as a key tool for universal access to quality education and for the respect of human rights in Haiti. We hope, perhaps with too much optimism, that our MIT-Haiti Initiative, in spite of its obvious limitations (after all, MIT is part of the Global North), can serve as one among other models that can help the Global South recover, and perhaps even escape, from imperialism and racism.

Mathematical Paths to Mathematical Understanding

In her commentary on the "Analytical Engine" created by her friend and colleague Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, sometimes called the world's first computer programmer, distinguished between the mechanical and rational labors of mathematics. Also, Lovelace was the first to recognize the power of computing devices to transcend mathematical calculations, to support reasoning about any domain of human experience. Lovelace's discourse poses the question of how clearly we can distinguish between mechanical and rational processes. Also, it raises the question of how each originates in the human mind, and what causal relations might exist between purely mechanical computations and moments of rational insight that lead humans to derive axioms, notice analogies between different representational formats (e.g., geometry and algebra), or to create new representational formats altogether. In this talk, I argue that the mechanical labors of the mind - particularly in the case of mathematics - allow humans to discover rational insights that otherwise would not be available to them, and that our most profound mathematical discoveries hinge upon learning from, and about, the mechanical rules of thought. To make this case, I present evidence from children's acquisition of counting procedures, and how this learning fuels their discovery that numbers, space, and time are infinite. I also argue that the logic that underpins these computations is fundamentally linguistic, and depends on the computational engine provided by human natural language.

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