We Have a New Shortest Science Paper. It Also Has No Words, and Is Utterly Brilliant.
To most laypeople, a scientific paper is a wordy jumble of jargon, the abstruse monotony occasionally punctured with a confusing chart, and maybe a table or two brimming with numbers. Many scientists recognize that this perception is at least partly deserved, and do their best to communicate their work clearly, correctly and as briefly as possible.
To salute their efforts, last year, we drew attention to the shortest scientific paper ever published. Published in 1974 to the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, "The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of “writer's block” had no words (and, as it turns out, was successfully and hilariously replicated in 2007).
Now, we can report that there is actually a tie for the distinction of "shortest scientific paper."
"On nonrecoverable deletion in syntax," published in 1972 to the journal Linguistic Inquiry, also had no words, and -- in its own fashion -- was equally brilliant. University of Texas associate professor John T. Beavers apprised RealClearScience of the paper, and kindly provided an image and explained its relevance:
The 1960s and 1970s saw a growth of work on the syntax of natural languages due to the groundbreaking work of Noam Chomsky, who began a research program known as Generative Grammar that sought to describe and explain the knowledge speakers have of their native languages through explicit formalization and hypothesis testing. One phenomenon that has received attention is ellipsis, i.e. when words are left out of a sentence but the information that is unexpressed is still inferred semantically. An example is "verb phrase ellipsis" where the main verb phrase of a clause is left out, as in the second clause in "John will be here tomorrow but Mary won't." In the given context it's clear that there's an implicit "be here tomorrow" after "won't".
One way of analyzing this is to assume that in some underlying mental representation of the sentence the verb phrase "be here tomorrow" is actually present after "won't" (accounting for the fact that that's how we interpret it), but its overt phonetic form is deleted when uttered because the information is recoverable from earlier in the same sentence (the previous mention of the verb phrase "will be here tomorrow", the antecedent of the ellipsis). It had furthermore been hypothesized that deletion in syntax of this sort could only ever happen if there was an explicit antecedent, a rule of grammar called the Recoverability Condition on Deletion, first proposed by Jerrold J. Katz and Paul M. Postal in 1964 and developed by others later. It had a lot of intuitive appeal --- what would it mean to leave out something while giving no clue as to what you left out?
Then, in 1972, Linguistic Inquiry published the Fall issue of its 3rd volume, and on page 528 was a paper called "On nonrecoverable deletion in syntax" by Robert Fiengo and Howard Lasnik on exactly this topic. Indeed, some people who saw the title might have thought, "Ah! Somebody found an instance of nonrecoverable deletion! Unexpressed material without an antecedent! A violation of the Recoverability Condition! I wonder how that works." In fact, that's exactly what I thought in 2002 as a grad student when I stumbled across the title. I quickly ran to the library to get the journal out, and I flipped it to page 528 to begin reading.
It was instead a clever joke, and a striking argument in FAVOR of the Recoverability Condition.
Just in case the punchline of the joke isn't immediately evident (as it wasn't to me), the paper was left blank to make the point that you can't leave out something without having something to be left out. And if there's nothing to be left out in the first place, then there is nothing.
"The point of the article was to argue for the recoverability condition by violating it in a rather spectacular (and cheeky) way, thus demonstrating the effect," Beavers told RCS.
Funny, profound, and pithy: fitting for the world's shortest scientific paper!
(Image: John T. Beavers)