On Becoming a Discipline

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The title of this column, Last Words, reminds me of an occasion in 2005, when I had the Privilege of attending the award ceremony for the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Medal. Given annually to a few scientists who have made outstanding lifetime contributions to science. This time, a computational linguist, Aravind Joshi, was among them, so several past, present, and future presidents and officers of the ACL joined the Great and the Good at the ceremony at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

The eight medal recipients were each represented by a short video presentation. Which mostly consisted of voice-over by a narrator, interspersed with sound-bites from. The recipients about their life and work, in the last of which they had clearly been asked to deliver as their last words a brief take-home message.

I couldn’t help noticing that the warmest applause was reserved for the physicist, a distinguished pioneer of string theory. I was initially puzzled by the enthusiasm on the part of a mostly lay audience for such theoretical work, which for all its elegance and beauty, could not (as far as I could see) be expected to have nearly as much impact on their everyday lives as that of some of the other recipients, who that year included not only Aravind, but another computer scientist whose impact on information processing will be obvious to the members of ACL, Andrew Viterbi.

But then I recalled that the physicist’s take-home message had had nothing to do with string theory. This admirable man’s last words to us had been the following:

Everything is made of particles. So physics is very important.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-144
Number of pages8
JournalComputational Linguistics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2008


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