Monday, November 7, 2011

Innovation of the work called programming

The theoretical astrophysics meeting at the National Observatory of Japan in Tokyo is primarily aimed at graduate students and as such, is one of the few science conferences to be held in Japanese. Despite this sounding like a recipe for unimaginable PAIN, CONFUSION and DISTRESS, I was chilled out for two reasons:

Firstly, I was informed my primary directive was to present myself to the Japan astronomy circuit which I pretty much achieved by walking through the door and eating sushi at the evening dinner.

Secondly, it was a theorist meeting. The talks were BOUND to have pretty movies. Words are so overrated. They are what observers need to justify strange grey blobs.

In fact, attending the talks turned out to be a bizarre walk through the babyland world of language learning. Before we left, I had asked my head of group whether the slides were likely to be in English, an occurrence that seemed common practice in the seminars I had attended in Hokkaido University. "Some might be" was the response that was elicited. By this, I presumed a few speakers might do their slides in English and others in Japanese.

This was not the case.

The reality was a completely random distribution of English and Japanese slides within the same talk. A presentation might be given entirely in Japanese but the list of concluding remarks written in English. Others had a sudden English slide buried in their midst and still more were written in Japanese throughout but would have a short paragraph or single phrase such as "Radial migration of disk stars" appearing unexpectedly half-way down a slide. 

No one else seemed to consider this the slightest bit surprising.

Possibly, I reasoned, presenters had borrowed slides from other talks they had previously given in English. However, this didn't really explain the language switch mid-slide. That more resembled the writer getting up for a cup of coffee, becoming momentarily inspired by a line of Macbeth, and returning to type up his presentation in English.

An additional help to my comprehension was the use of katakana. Katakana is a Japanese phonetic script for writing foreign words, a catagory that includes many scientific terms that have been adopted rather than translated. Reading katakana, however, isn't the most straight forward process since while it's often transcribing an English word.... it's English on crack.

"シミュレーション" for example, reads literally "shimyureeshon". It's only by experimentally dropping 'U's and switching around a few 'R's for 'L's and all the while pretending you are eating a gigantic gob stopper does it become clear that it reads "simulation". Likewise, "ユニバース" ("yunibaasu") can just about be crushed into "universe". Similar feats allowed me to extract "dark halo" (mysterious things around galaxies), "dust" (everywhere), "dead zone" (for planets, not people), "Andromeda" (nearby galaxy) and "model" (unrealistic creation that allows the opportunity to produce a follow-up paper). Oddly, one presenter obviously became tired of katakana and just plonked "thick disk" in the middle of his sentence in English.

In terms of understanding what was actually spoken I found my comprehension was inversely proportional to the usefulness of the phrase. Pretty much all nouns and verbs escaped me but I was right on the ball regarding terms such as "there is...", "yes, that's right" and "and after that we...". Basically, if you could take it out of the sentence without affecting the meaning, I was all over it.

The program for the three day meeting was written in Japanese but my head of group had run it through an online translator. The bot for this had done a surprisingly impressive job although I think my favourite talk title is definitely: "Innovation of work called programming". Appropriately, this presentation concluded the conference.

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