04/08/2014 04:48 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

How Not to Sound More Erudite


As a physicist, I notice that people commonly use terms with physics connotations that just baffle me. It all came to a head several years ago when the USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships were held in Kansas (where there are lots of hills, for those who don't know). I was there for the team time trials, helping out at the finish line at the bottom of the last hill, and the announcer on the public address system was giving us progress updates on each team. When I heard him say, "They are moving at a high rate of speed," I lost it. I went over to the announcer and started to get in his face about his poor use of language. He looked at me like I was crazy, and he probably still says the same thing today, but now I'm on a mission.

The phrase "high rate of speed" is used in news reports about traffic accidents or something similar where there was something traveling at high speed, I believe. I guess they want to appear more erudite and make it more complicated by saying "high rate of speed." However, as a physicist, I can tell you that this term is at least redundant and maybe meaningless. Speed is the term for the magnitude of the time rate of change of the distance. Wow, what did that mean? It is the number found by taking the distance traveled and dividing it by the time it took to travel that distance. Velocity is the same thing, but with velocity we know the direction something is traveling in addition to the distance traveled. So speed and velocity are the rate of change of distance. Then there is acceleration. Acceleration is the rate of change of velocity. Are you slowing down or speeding up? So to say "high rate of speed" is equivalent to saying "high rate of rate" and makes little sense to me. Do they mean that the car was speeding up? Probably not; they just mean that the car was going fast, or at a high speed. So how can we get people to use the correct terminology and just say, "They were traveling at high speed"? Let me know. My students and others get a lecture every time I hear this, and my dad, who should know better, started using it the other day, prompting this post.

There are other terms that are also confusing, such as "quantum leap." In common parlance it implies a large leap. In quantum physics we are normally talking about very small numbers, and the differences are not all that large, but they do change by integer multiples of the Planck constant. The term "quantum leap" is technically not wrong, but it gives a different impression to a physicist than to a layperson. So that one bothers my postdoctoral researcher.

The next one isn't so bad; it has to do with statements about momentum shifting and is normally heard in sports broadcasts. One key concept in physics is conservation of momentum, which means that the momentum doesn't change. Momentum doesn't always have to be conserved in physical processes, so I guess sports can have momentum shifts as well.

I'm sure that you can give me other examples. In any case, think about what you are saying to a physicist. The next time you try to use more complicated words to describe something, it may be better to keep it simple.