Monthly Archives: January 2012

Mispellings (sic!)

Why can some people correctly spell a word they’ve never used and other people sometimes spell their own name wrong?

There are at least two theories of spelling.  One theory holds that spelling is accomplished phonetically.  One constructs a word by hearing the groups of sounds in the word.  But hold the homophone!  Since English spelling has many exceptions to the rules, this method can get you in trouble.  Some words have the same pronunciation but different meanings and sometimes different spellings.  These words are called homophones.  One word that always fouls me up is “palate” whose pronunciation works for three different words: ‘p-a-l-a-t-e’, meaning “the roof of the mouth”, ‘p-a-l-e-t-t-e’, as in “a painter’s palette of colors”, and ‘p-a-l-l-e-t’, which can mean “a portable platform for carrying freight”.

The theory of spelling that I use is the “sight method”.   As I spell a word I compare it to the picture of the word in my mind.  This method requires that you have seen the word sometime before, even if you’ve never used it, and it requires a good memory.  The sight method is not flawless, however.  I always mispell the word “misspell” by using only one “s”.  See?  I did it again.  This word must have been mispelled the first time I saw it.

Some people, like my brother, use a statistical method.  One time he was told by a grocery cashier that ‘f-o-u-r-t-y’ on his check was misspelled.  He replied, “I alternate ‘f-o-u-r-t-y’ and  ‘f-o-r-t-y’ so that I’m guaranteed of getting it right half the time.”

Every day at work I walked past an irritating sign.  It said, “Caution!  When the red light is flashing, X-rays are emmitted.”  “Emmitted” should, of course, only have one ‘m’.  For years I wondered who “Emmit” was.

Good spellers always notice spelling errors.  On roadtrips my mother would frequently point to signs with misspelled words.  She’d say, “Look! ’M-a-s-a-c-h-u-s-e-t-t-s’ is spelled wrong.”  We always found this odd because we were driving in Virginia.  I bet that even people who live in Massachusetts don’t know how to spell it.  They’ll say things like, “Oh, I’m from Boston”.  The joke’s on them because there’d be no actual spelling involved anyway if they were saying, “I’m from Massachusetts”.

So if you’re a naturally good speller, congratulations; you’ll have an easy life.  If you can’t hit the broad side of a spelling bee, though, never mind.  Just look-up your troublesome words in the dictionary.  Of course, you’ll have to know how to spell them first.

The Theory of Everything

I was just starting to get my mind around the so-called “Theory of Everything” when I found a book written by a physicist on a second Theory of Everything.

Physicists have been working on the first Theory of Everything for much of the last century.  It seeks to explain the four fundamental forces of nature in one neat package.  These well-known forces produce all of the known effects in the Universe.  They are: the force that holds atomic nuclei together, the force responsible for radioactivity, the force governing the affects of electricity and magnetism, and the force of gravity.  There are individual theories that explain these forces, like Einstein’s General Relativity, which is a theory of Gravity, but there is not yet a whole theory that can account for both gravity and radioactivity, for example.

These theories are thought up by people called Theoretical Physicists.  It’s difficult to imagine what these people do everyday.  “Honey, I won’t be home for dinner tonight.  We can’t get this damn thing with Uranium and Jupiter to work out.”

And why is it important to have a Theory of Everything?  Don’t we have enough real-life problems to solve?  As Woody Allen put it, “I’m astounded by people who want to “know” the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.”

In his book, “The Fabric of Reality”, Oxford physicist David Deutsch explains why it’s important to have a good Theory of Everything.  He says a proper theory should explain things so that we get a better understanding of the world, in addition to correctly predicting the behavior of poorly understood phenomena.  His new Theory of Everything postulates the existence of multiple universes and predicts the possibility of time travel into the past.  If you were to travel into your past, you would end up in a parallel universe so that you could not inadvertently alter your future in your hometown universe.  Travel into your past could be problematic, however, if the parallel universe uses different street names and ZIP codes.

Deutsch believes that one day it will be possible to link together all the many theories of Physics – “to understand all that is understood” as he puts it– without cluttering our minds with all the facts.  Personally, I hope we will eventually have a Theory of Everything, and I’m content to let the theoretical physicists figure out how we should understand the Universe.  Then maybe the rest of us can devote more attention to finding a good Chinese restaurant.