Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society

The Office Next Door
By Peter Dizikes. Technology Review, Nov/Dec, 2011

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“Science,” the physicist Werner Heisenberg once wrote, “is rooted in conversations.” As he saw it, scientists are rarely solitary thinkers but people who constantly talk: about ideas, findings, research techniques, and unresolved problems. Some of these conversations last for a few minutes or hours. But others continue for years or decades, shaping careers, disciplines, and even institutions.

Consider the nearly 60-year relationship between economists Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow that endured until Samuelson, who provided the mathematical framework for modern economics, died in 2009. When Solow, now an Institute Professor emeritus, arrived at MIT in 1950 as an assistant professor of statistics, he was given an office across the hall from the already famous Samuelson in Building 14, where the economics department was then located. “We began talking every day about economics and other things, so we were friends from some day in September 1950 until the day Paul died,” Solow recalls.


In 1951, soon after Samuelson met Solow, a polyglot Latvian war refugee named Morris Halle took an assistant professorship at MIT. Halle had fled the Nazis, moved to New York City, and fought in World War II for the United States, and he would soon complete a PhD in linguistics at Harvard. At MIT’s Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE), where Halle performed acoustic analysis of Russian, he interviewed a job-seeking researcher named Carol Chomsky, who would later become a linguist at Harvard. She was hired, and soon Halle met her husband, Noam, also a linguist.

The first time Halle and Noam Chomsky spoke, “we immediately had a big argument about something, and later I thought he had some good points,” Chomsky recalls. “Anyway, we very quickly became close friends.”

Chomsky, Halle, and linguist Eric Lenneberg also became doubters of behaviorism, the idea that actions (including speech) are essentially socially conditioned. Soon, they “pretty much formulated a different approach to the study of language and the general questions of what became cognitive science,” says Chomsky.

In 1955, another linguistics position opened up at MIT. With Halle’s help, Chomsky got the job. By the late 1950s, Chomsky was revolutionizing linguistics with his idea of generative grammar, which holds that language is an innate human capacity and that all languages have organizational similarities. Chomsky focused on syntax, the principles governing the structure of language. Halle became a leader in phonology, the analysis of sound production. At one point the two shared an office, but mostly—like Samuelson and Solow—they inhabited offices next door to each other for decades, in their case inside MIT’s spartan, now-vanished Building 20.

“Noam and Morris had offices that were the two most miserable holes in the whole place,” recalls linguistics professor Donca Steriade, PhD ‘82. The modest circumstances amused Halle. As he recounts: “I would say to Noam, ‘Where’s your other office?’”

But Chomsky loved his surroundings. “Building 20 was a fantastic environment,” he says. “It looked like it was going to fall apart. There were no amenities, the plumbing was visible, and the windows looked like they were going to fall out. But it was extremely interactive. At RLE in the 1950s there was a mixture of people who later became [part of] separate departments—biology and computer science—interacting informally all the time. You would walk down the corridor and meet people and have a discussion.”

In 1968 Chomsky and Halle coauthored The Sound Pattern of English, which linked syntax and phonology to explain how the rules of grammar affect speech. For example, as Chomsky and Halle observe, we say “blackboard” with a falling inflection but “black board” with a rising inflection, to reflect their different syntactical structures (one is a noun, the other a noun phrase).

Today, Chomsky and Halle, who are Institute Professors emeritus, still have adjacent offices, now in MIT’s Stata Center, which opened on the site of Building 20 in 2004. One other thing hasn’t changed, says Chomsky: they continue to have “rational arguments.”

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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.


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