Sylvain Bromberger, an extraordinary man
Sylvain Bromberger, philosopher of science and language, was welcomed to the ENS on May 15th, 2017 for a workshop in his honor.
Born in Belgium in 1924, veteran of the American army during World War II, then professor at MIT starting in the 60s, Sylvain Bromberger
has had a profound influence on multiple generations of philosophers and linguists, all of whom have been impressed by his extraordinary
personality, his cleverness, but also his humor and generosity. Paul Égré (ENS) and Robert May (UC Davis) wanted to focus on
his contributions during this workshop which concluded with the reading of experiences of his former students and colleagues,
including Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle.
Sylvain Bromberger, born in 1924 and emeritus professor at the department for linguistics and philosophy at MIT, is a philosopher of language. He played a central role in guiding linguists’ and philosophers’ interest for the semantics of questions during the 1970s. Most noteworthy is his pioneering article "Why-questions" published in 1966. His work was dedicated to the idea of scientific explanation "An approach to explanation", published in 1962, to the problem of the rational usage of ignorance in scientific query, "What we don’t know when we don’t know why", published in 1987, to phonology, "The Ontology of Phonology", published in 1995 along with five other articles co-authored with Morris Halle, and even to the individuation of the lexicon, "What are Words?", published in 2011. It has had a profound influence on generations of philosophers and linguists trained at MIT.
The organizers of the workshop, Paul Égré and Robert May, wanted to focus on Sylvain Bromberger’s contributions. Born in 1924 in Antwerp to a French-speaking Jewish family, Sylvain Bromberger escaped the Nazi threat with his family in 1940. After reaching Paris, then Bordeaux, his family finally obtained one of the last visas issued by the Portuguese consul in Bayonne. Once he had arrived in New York, Sylvain Bromberger first studied at the École Libre des Hautes Études, then attending George Washington High School. In 1942, despite being accepted to Columbia University, Sylvain Bromberger chose to join the ranks of the American army where he served for three years in the infantry. In 1944 and 1945, he participated in the liberation of Europe, most notably by fighting in Germany. Having picked his studies back up at Columbia after the War, he first studied physics, then philosophy of science under Hans Reichenbach, Ernst Nagel, and Morton White, who he worked with during his PhD at Harvard. Professor at Princeton, the University of Chicago, then at MIT from 1966, he trained many generations of students at MIT, teaching alongside Noam Chomsky, Morris Halle, and Thomas Kuhn.
On May 15th, Sylvain Bromberger opened the workshop with a rich presentation describing his recent work on the analysis of "why" questions and their response conditions. His presentation was followed by five others given by Benjamin Spector, Joëlle Proust, David Nicolas, Isabelle Dautriche, and Robert May on themes related to his work, specifically metacognition, homophony, and the idea of linguistic theory. The day was concluded by Robert May, a former student of Bromberger’s at MIT during the 1970s, who read out stories from former students and colleagues including Noam Chomsky, Moris Halle, and Robert Stainton. One of the more moving experiences was undoubtedly that of Moris Halle (born in 1923): "The first time I noticed Sylvain was when we were both students at George Washington High School in New York City in 1940. He was performing in a kind of one-man show. He took the part of a French monk who had a favorite flea named Eulalie that he kept in his robes. At the end of the performance the flea disappeared. I remember that the performance over three quarters of a century ago was brilliant. In fact, it was on the basis of this performance that 20 years later that I persuaded Noam to hire him at MIT. Perhaps if you are lucky, he will recreate the performance today. In those high school years many of the kids had escaped from Europe. They formed cliques depending on their native language. Sylvain’s was French. Mine was German. It wasn’t until he came to MIT that we became friends. He came to us fromthe philosophy department at the university of Chicago where he had been a professor. Like me and Noam he never left." Another touching experience was that of Noam Chomsky, who talked about daily walks and conversations he had with Sylvain along the banks of the Charles River that borders MIT: « Those walks were a high point of the day for many years, as were the seminars we cotaught and the many other occasions when we could spend some time together, almost always leaving me with the same challenging question: Why? Which I’ve come to think of as Sylvain’s question. And leaving me with the understanding that it is a question we should always ask when we have surmounted some barrier in inquiry and think we have an answer, only to realize that we are like mountain climbers who think they see the peak but when they approach it find that it still lies tantalizingly beyond».
At the day’s close, Sylvain Bromberger told the organizers: "My first memory of Paris was May 10th, 1940, when my younger brother and I, who were living with our parents on the rue des Rosiers in Paris with our cousins, went out to wander about the city and discover its wonders, all whilst sirens were blaring almost non-stop. That evening, back at home, our parents, who hadn’t heard from us all day, were worried to death; we had to leave immediately for Bordeaux. I never would have imagined that I would be coming back in May 2017 for a workshop in my honor!".
Some of the conferences, including Sylvain Bromberger’s will soon be available on the DEC’s website.
Interview with Minoru Tsuzaki (University of Kyoto) by Christian Lorenzi (LSP/Audition).
Minoru Tsuzaki has just spent a month at the Laboratoire des Systèpes Perceptifs (LSP) as a visiting researcher.
Could you please tell us about your career?
I was initially trained in psychology at Tokyo University. At the beginning, I wanted to study the psychology of perception. However, I quickly realized that the general field of vision research was quite large, and thus decided to study auditory perception instead. I investigated the perception of frequency sweeps at the very beginning, until my Master degree. Next, I then took a position at Nigata University where I started working on music perception. I moved back to Tokyo University where I worked for three years. I then decided to take part in the ATR project (Advanced Telecommunication Research labs) in Kyoto, where I worked on phonemic categorical perception in the Visual and Auditory Perception group, as well as in the Human information processing lab. In 1995, I started collaborating with Prof Roy D Patterson at the Applied Psychology Unit (MRC) in Cambridge (UK). I visited him at that time and became more and more interested in auditory models, but also in the “fine-grain” vocoders and speech-synthesis techniques that were developed at ATR at that time. In 2004, I finally moved to the Kyoto City University of Arts where I was appointed as Professor at the Faculty of Music in 2009 and where I now teach musical acoustics and musical psychology. My current research mostly deals with the auditory perception of pitch.
Why is it important to study the auditory perception of "pitch"?
Pitch is a distinctive feature of sounds, that has been studied by auditory scientists for more than a century. Pitch is an auditory feature conveyed by a periodic sequence of acoustic events, such as glottal pulses, which role is - I believe - to specify the communication channel we should focus on. Pitch is encoded by a spatial (also called “place” or “tonotopic”) code in the auditory system, and by a purely temporal code via patterns of neural phase locking in auditory neurons.
You have found interesting effects of age on absolute pitch perception. Could you tell us more about this?
"Absolute pitch" refers to the ability of some people to specify the key (A, B, etc.) of a single musical note when listening to it, even without any musical context. As far I know, the number of absolute pitch possessors is relatively small in European countries. In contrast, more people seem to have absolute pitch in Japan. Amongst a sample of 65 students at my University, more than half are absolute pitch possessors. The origin of absolute pitch is still a matter of debate. In my opinion, it may have to do with musical teaching and early auditory experience. The sense of absolute pitch was found to shift in elderly people by one or two semi tones. In other words, musical notes are heard with a higher pitch when you age! This is quite mysterious because neural activity (at least, neural timing in the early auditory system) should not change with age. How could we model this ?
Let us first assume that some form of "internal reference" is used by the central auditory system to compute pitch and this internal reference corresponds to a given oscillatory period (e.g., 2.27 ms = 1/440) within a specific neural circuit. Thanks to musical training, certain people ("absolute pitch possessors") may become able to relate this oscillatory period to a given pitch label (e.g., A4). If we assume that for some reason, aging lengthens the period of that reference oscillation (e.g., to 2.4 ms), the musical sound Ab4 whose physical periodicity is 2.4 ms will then be categorized as A4. We are currently trying to implement this auditory model of pitch perception. We also need to find neurophysiological evidence for such a change in internal reference with aging….It may be the case that this change corresponds to a rather general phenomenon that may affect other aspects of hearing. I hope this approach will provide useful clues to better understand some effects of aging on auditory perception that are not measured by simple audiometric tests in the clinic.
Minoru Tsuzaki's website
Christian Lorenzi's website
The Cognitive Machine Learning team (CoML), a new INRIA team
The INRIA* Paris center has created a new Cognitive Machine Learning (CoML) team within the LSCP, led by Emmanuel Dupoux. The creation of CoML strengthens the links and interactions between the DEC and INRIA teams in machine learning, in particular the SIERRA, WILLOW and ALMANACH teams. CoML will also have links to the ENS-PSL Data Science and Quantitative Biology programs.
Machine learning algorithms inspired by the brain computing architecture have been successful at matching human performance on a number of high level tasks (e.g., Go game), but there are still a lot of domains in which humans outperform machines: unsupervised learning of rules and language, common sense reasoning, and more generally, cognitive flexibility (the ability to quickly transfer competence from one domain to another one).
The aim of the Cognitive Computing team is to reverse engineer such human abilities, i.e., to construct effective and scalable algorithms which perform as well (or better) than humans, when provided with similar data, and study their mathematical and algorithmic properties. The expected benefits are the production of more adaptable and autonomous machine learning algorithm for complex tasks and the modeling of cognitive processes which can be tested experimentally against behavioral and neuroscientific data.
The team will work in the domain of language and reasoning. The team will be involved in the construction of resources open to both the cognitive and machine learning communities (Human/Machine Benchmarking --www.zerospeech.com, naturalistic language data capture -- www.darcle.org)
* Inria is a French public science and technology institution dedicated to computational sciences.
From childhood to adulthood, what are the personal factors which guide the political choice?
Coralie Chevallier (LNC/ESC) was invited on BFM Business in "Votre santé m'intéresse" on June 1st...
Cliquer sur l'image pour voir la vidéo
...and on France Inter in "Carnet de santé" on May 27. Listen to the interveiw.
The human, a cooperative moral species
Nicolas Baumard (IJN/ESC) was one of the three nominees for the 2017 Young Economist Award. In an interview published in Le Monde last May, he returns to his work.
Read the interview.