Gone fisin': Kids hear better than they speak

Q. Is there much difference between what young children hear and what they can say? Asked another way, have you ever heard of the FIS phenomenon? –J. Fariello
A. This was first reported by psycholinguists Jean Berko and Roger Brown in 1960: "One of us spoke to a child who called his inflated plastic fish a 'FIS.' In imitation of the child's pronunciation, the observer said, 'This is your FIS?' 'No,' said the child, 'my FIS,' and he continued to repeat the adult's imitation until he was told, 'That is your fish.' 'Yes,' he said, 'my FIS.'"
This fascinating effect has been referred to as the FIS phenomenon ever since, says David Crystal in How Language Works. Reports indicate that children know far more about adult phonology than their own pronunciation suggests, leading to some intriguing conversations between young children and adults (as many of you parents have discovered for yourselves).

Q. How early in life did the "Father of Geekdom" get his first hint of who he might become? –B. Gates
A. Called also the "Father of Computer Science," retired Stanford math professor Donald Knuth may just be the world's most renowned geek, says Dave Wieczorek in Think magazine of Case Western Reserve University. Knuth has authored more than 30 books, including The Art of Computer Programming, already into its fourth volume and fifth decade. He is also editing Selected Papers on Fun and Games, which will include his own short story, The Chemical Caper, where every word is a chemical formula.
"A geek is not something you learn to be," Knuth says; "you just are." An early indication of this was the candy bar contest he entered as an eighth-grader. A local radio station had challenged contestants to see how many words they could make out of the letters in "Ziegler's Giant Bar."
"I devised a systematic way to go through the dictionary and find all these words. So I pretended to be sick and stayed home from school for a whole week. I found 4,500 words even though the judges had only 2,500 on their master list. (I won two candy bars and a toboggan.) That was an early indication of my geek streak."

Q. Can you think of a long word with only one vowel? –L. Carroll
A. "Rhythms" is a strong candidate, "strengths" is even stronger, growing more so if you turn it into "strengthlessness," a 16-letter word with only one vowel used repeatedly (from Anu Garg's The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two).

Q. You probably know about whole numbers, positive and negative numbers, fractions, decimals– all of which are "real" numbers. But what are "imaginary" numbers, which were initially treated with suspicion? –U. Clid
A. Because the square of any real number is positive (+3 times +3 = +9; -3 times -3 = +9), for centuries mathematicians thought it impossible for a negative number to have a square root, says Clifford Pickover in The Math Book. Then in the 16th century, the notation for taking the square root of -1 was introduced, and two centuries later came its symbol "i" for the first letter of the Latin word "imaginarius," which is still in use.
Today, imaginary numbers have become essential tools in microchip design and in digital compression, explains Michael Brooks of New Scientist magazine. Your MP3 player relies on imaginary stuff. Even more fundamental, imaginary numbers underpin quantum mechanics, which gave rise to the electronics revolution. "And without imaginary numbers,” Brooks says, “you won't get an answer that reflects the reality of the physical world, and you won't get an iPod either."
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Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com.