Work on Human Cognition
Smolensky chosen for efforts in optimality theory
Paul Smolensky, professor and former chair of the Department of Cognitive Science in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University, has won the fifth annual David E. Rumelhart Prize, a prestigious international award that recognizes individuals or teams making significant contributions to the formal analysis of human cognition.
The youngest scientist ever chosen for this honor, Smolensky, 49, will receive the $100,000 prize and deliver the award lecture at the 27th annual meeting of the Cognitive Society in Stresa, Italy, in July 2005. Previous winners include John Anderson of Carnegie Mellon University (2004) and Aravind Joshi of the University of Pennsylvania (2003.)
Smolensky expressed both surprise and gratitude at being placed in such company.
"The previous winners have each contributed an impressive body of work and it was a gratifying to find that others rate my contributions as being in their league," he said.
Smolensky and his collaborator, Alan Prince of Rutgers University, are responsible for what many in the field consider one of the most important developments in linguistics since the 1950s: optimality theory. According to Johns Hopkins cognitive science chair Luigi Burzio, "OT took over certain areas of theoretical linguistics overnight, and has since been making significant inroads in others."
"Over the past 50 years, the study of language, once most closely associated with literature, has been approached increasingly from a formal and mathematical point of view. Paul Smolensky's remarkable career, which began with a Ph.D. in mathematical physics, is a perfect epitome of this trend," Burzio said.
Optimality theory posits that all the world's 6,500 languages share a common set of criteria that make certain expressions preferable. For instance, syllables that begin with consonants are preferred to those that don't, and sentences that begin with a subject are preferred to those that do not.
In experimental research with the late Johns Hopkins University professor Peter W. Juzcysk, Smolensky uncovered evidence that even 4 1/2- month-old infants know a subtle universal constraint: some consonant sequences (such as the sounds "nt" and "mp") are preferred to others (such as "np" and "mt.") This supports the controversial hypothesis that knowledge of grammatical constraints is universal among humans because it is innate and actually encoded in our genome. But it was not only Smolensky's seminal contributions to cognitive theory that prompted his choice as this year's winner, said Robert Glushko, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose foundation, The Robert J. Glushko and Pamela Samuelson Foundation, funds the award.
"Paul is not only a scientist doing good science, but he also is a good human being and scientific citizen who values mentoring other, younger scientists just starting out, just as Dave Rumelhart did," said Glushko, who received his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology in 1979 under Rumelhart's supervision.
Widely known both for his great scientific achievements and his gentle humanity, David Rumelhart was a Stanford University professor until 1998, when he became disabled by a severe form of early dementia called Pick's disease.
"Dave was one of the most brilliant scientists I've ever had the privilege to know," Smolensky said. "He had a huge impact on the theoretical development of cognitive science, and on anyone who met him."
The Rumelhart Prize is administered by the Prize Selection Committee, chaired by James L. McClelland of Carnegie Mellon University's Center of the Neural Basis of Cognition in consultation with the Glushko-Samuelson Foundation and an advisory board.
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