07/17/2012 07:31 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2012

Let's Talk About Words and Science

Let's talk about words and science. I teach general chemistry in a metropolitan university. When students encounter big scary science words that are new to them, their tendency is to make some flashcards and start memorizing. I say, Stop! We speak English, so that means we can break a word down into understandable pieces (yes, I know, these are Greek and Latin roots). Students encounter "spectrophotometer" early in their chemistry career. "Spectro-" sounds a lot like spectrum, a spreading out, "photo-" implies light, and the suffix "-meter" indicates an instrument that measures something (think thermo-meter, potentio-meter, baro-meter). So, there you have it: a spectrophotometer is simply an instrument that spreads out and measures light.

This process only works with compound words, but it's a starting place. Students and the science-interested public face more confusion with words that are used in both the common parlance and in specific science disciplines. Let's take the word "quantum". How many times have you read or heard about a "quantum leap" in consumer protection policy or Apple monitor displays? Stories such as these imply that a quantum leap is a huge change. A quantum is in fact the smallest theoretical packet of energy (sort of like an atom is to matter). So when an electron in an atom makes a transition from one energy level to another, that is a true quantum leap. Students do this calculation in general chemistry and see that the energy change is on the order of 10-18 Joules, which is a tiny amount of energy, indeed. (It should be noted that there have been a large number of recent Higgs boson stories touting the potential discovery as a quantum leap, which is more or less appropriate.)

I keep a running list of words that are commonly misconstrued because of their different usage in scientific disciplines and everyday speech. For another example,'s first definition for the adjective "degenerate" is "having fallen below a normal or desirable level." The disciplines of chemistry and physics utilize the very last definition, "having equal energy" when describing atomic orbitals. These are subtle and confusing differences for students that can be exploited by diabolical teachers on multiple-choice exams.

Consider some other words that fall into this category. "Volatile" can mean quick to anger or easily converted to the gas phase. Something that is "spontaneous" occurs without outside influence or describes a person acting on sudden impulse. We all know the controversy about the word, "theory." In a switch, scientists utilize the first definition, "a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena" ( The general public tends to use the last definitions, either "a particular conception or view of something to be done or of the method of doing it" or worse, "ideally or hypothetically". And then things can quickly degenerate into a volatile discussion about the definition of the word, theory. In fact, that discussion might even be "scintillating," which also has both popular and scientific definitions. Please submit your comments about other words you have collected that have different common and scientific usages.

Some words are pronounced differently in science, at least in parts of the country. When you buy milk at the grocery store, it's homogenized, with an emphasis on the second syllable. In science, a salt and water solution is homogeneous, which has an emphasis on the third syllable. Talking like a scientist is important, too, I tell my students.

Finally, let's talk about how we learn about words and how that has changed. Back in the day (cue: eye roll), we had dictionary drills in middle school. Each student had a dictionary at his or her desk. The teacher would call out some new multisyllabic word, "anthropomorphic," and we would furiously turn pages until someone shouted out the definition. Prizes were awarded for the fastest looker uppers. This was supposed to train us to be good, what? Dictionary users, I suppose. I still have a dictionary in my office. It sits with a faded cover collecting dust on a shelf. I can't remember the last time I opened it. Instead we all use some sort of dictionary website or application on our computer, smart phone, or tablet.

There's even a dictionary for words and expressions that would make old Noah Webster and his contemporaries spin in their graves. I don't remember how I first learned about Urban Dictionary, but my teenaged daughters were a bit concerned the first time I mentioned I had looked something up there. The vast majority of entries are for slang terms for sex, body parts, getting drunk or wasted, and sexual practices. In true 21st century wiki spirit, the definitions are all submitted by users and anyone can give a definition a thumbs up or thumbs down. This does provide a feel for the trendiness or obscurity of a particular term. Just out of curiosity, I looked up "chemistry," and was surprised to find 37 definitions. As you might expect, there is a lot of overlap, but the trending themes were blowing stuff up, making drugs, torturing students, and what women want before sex.