Archive for the ‘language’ tag

The Science of Words

By January 18th, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Comment

We’re shuffling science into the language department as we explore citizen science projects about words. Explore the science of words by checking out these projects, fit for lovers of literature and armchair museum curators!

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Investigating Word Modalities
Help determine whether certain words are associated with sight and sound. Complete an online questionnaire, assessing the “sensory modality” of the words.
Get started!


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The VerbCorner Project
Dictionaries have existed for centuries, but creating exact meanings of many words still needs help. These researchers have broken the problem into a series of microtasks in need of your input.
Get started!


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Notes from Nature
Help museum staff transcribe scanned copies of labels and ledgers that have been meticulously recorded and stored with species over the past century. In many cases these are the only historical records of species distribution available. Putting them online can help accelerate research.
Get started!


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Ancient Lives
Ancient Lives wants you to help transcribe ancient papyri texts from Greco-Roman Egypt. The data gathered will help scholars reveal new knowledge of the literature, culture, and lives of Greco-Romans in ancient Egypt.
Get started!


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Ignore That!
How well are you able to ignore unnecessary information? To study this, researchers ask you to look at words and simple figures and answer questions about them online.
Get started!



We’re taking citizen science to the NBA! Meet us at the 76ers NBA game on 2/18. It’s Science at the 76ers night! SciStarter is organizing a series of citizen science activities on the concourse. During the game, microbe collection kits will be shot from the 76ers’ T-shirt bazooka right into the stands so fans can swab microbes from their shoes and cellphones for Project MERCCURI! If you are involved in or run a citizen science project available to people in the Philly area, contact to see how you can participate!

Have you joined more than one citizen science project? Take a 5-10 minute survey and tell us about your experience in this survey

If you’d like your citizen science project featured on SciStarter, email

Games With Words: Play On

By July 17th, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Comment

Imagine trying to uncover the meaning behind all the words in the English language. Well, that’s what dictionaries are for, right? Not quite. According to Joshua Hartshorne, the director of MIT’s Games With Words, our current understanding of any word is simply based on its relationship with other words. That’s precisely the problem.

To provide an analogy, imagine if you only recognized the color blue because you knew it wasn’t yellow, green, or red. You know it’s “lighter” than black but “darker” than white. You also know it’s similar to the color of the sky or ocean. But take these relationships away, and ask yourself–do you truly understand what blue is?

This is essentially what Games With Words aspires to investigate in language—the intrinsic meaning of words. Hartshorne’s interdisciplinary team of psychologists, computer scientists, and linguists are trying to characterize what verbs mean.

“Dictionaries notwithstanding, scientists really do not know very much about what words mean, and it is hard to program [computers] to know what the word means when you [yourself] actually do not know,” says Hartshorne. “Our best computer systems, like Google Translate and Siri, treat words as essentially meaningless symbols that need to be moved around.”

One component of Games With Words is Verb Corner, which aims to uncover the meaning of verbs, a particularly challenging subset of language. Choose from 6 different games and scenarios that you can tackle. The more questions you answer, the more valuable the questions you have already answered become. This is because Games With Words uses cutting-edge analysis techniques to estimate your biases (everyone understands language differently!) and simultaneously identify difficult questions. So, the more data they have from each person, the better these analyses work.

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“Rather than try to work out the definition of a word all at once, we have broken the problem into a series of tasks. Each task has a fanciful backstory, […] but at its heart, each task is asking about a specific component of meaning that scientists suspect makes up one of the building blocks of verb meaning. In this, we are building on pioneering work by Ray Jackendoff, Steven Pinker, Beth Levin and many other linguists and psychologists.”

Hartshorne recalls that back in 2006 when he started doing web-based experiments, collecting data from groups of hundreds of people was impressive. Nowadays, with existing technology, it’s possible to collect data from groups in the thousands if not tens of thousands. The ability to do this only adds value to studies like Games With Words. However, one of the biggest challenges is still scope. Because this is such a massive undertaking (there are lots and lots of words), the Games With Words staff needs all the help they can get from citizen scientists like you. (Yes you, dear reader!)

“We realized very early that even with a small army, it would take us well past the ends of our careers to finish this project if we don’t attract enough citizen scientists.”

The Games With Words team will be sharing the results of the project freely with scientists and the public alike, and they expect it to make a valuable contribution to linguistics, psychology, and computer science.

If this is up your alley, follow it down to Verb Corner, ASAP! Find other language-related projects (and over 600+ other citizen science projects) using our Project Finder.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons,

Although she holds dual bachelors’ degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine, Lily Bui has long harbored a proclivity for the sciences. A daughter of an engineer and an accountant who also happen to be a photographer and musician, respectively, Lily grew up on the nexus between science and art. Lily has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served a year in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter in California; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. She currently works in public media at WGBH-TV and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Boston, MA. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns (mostly to entertain herself). Follow @dangerbui.