Scientific Terms

Science is for many, an intimidating subject and is seen as something complicated, regardless of the field in question; and unfortunately is confined as an issue involving the use of information reserved for a reduced membership; this in a way is provoked and made evident by science itself.

In various fields of science, scientific teams make very precise definitions and techniques for their subjects of study, but in this process the precision and methodology they use are so rigid that it is somewhat daunting and a bit intimidating to explore, probably even more that the same science involved. But do not get me wrong, once you understand the reason for these definitions, then they make sense; but at first glance it definitely seems like the handling of a dark art.

A good example is the terminology used by biologists, based on the hitherto current classification or taxonomy of Linnaeus; (from the Greek ‘taxis’, or arrangement, beginning with these technical terms!).

This classification, initially defined by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1735 (which was later extended), now establishes a taxonomic definition limited to eight ranks:

  • Life
  • Domain
  • Kingdom
  • Phylum (in zoology)
  • Class
  • Order
  • Family
  • Genus
  • Species

This means that each animal or plant species belongs to one of the groups within each of these categories, so if you want to pursue a career related to biology, then you’re up for a good dose of memorization for a multitude of these species.

One classification example, us humans…

  • Life:
  • Domain – Eukarya; organisms with cells that have nucleus.
  • Kingdom – Animalia; multicellular organisms from the animal kingdom
  • Phylum – Chordata; animals with a dorsal nerve or spine.
  • Class – Mammalia; from Latin for breast (breast feeding).
  • Order – Primates; Have larger brains compared to other mammals
  • Family – Hominidae; denominated as great apes
  • Genus – Homo; derived from Latin, meaning “human being”.
  • Species – H. Sapiens; us, “modern humans”

Certainly this is too much information to assimilate, and this just for one  species! Therefore, having to do it and learn it for each studied species is really a challenge. I bet Biologists find this classification fascinating, and in all fairness, make them an elite group, and also for that reason with a very specialized membership within its scope, with experts for each branch of this science.

Here it comes, the grandeur of astrophysics.

Here’s why I think astrophysics is the coolest science, in this field you will find order and structure but the naming convention is much more liberal and unstructured, and due this nature, in several instances the used terminology is fun, and even funny. Astrophysicists don’t use in most cases fancy or complex terms to define events or objects; starting with the beginning there’s no “mundum incipere” (liberal Latin translation for cosmos beginning), to define the beginning of the cosmos; what’s the term used? The “Big bang!” and as in this case, the list goes on…

When it was noticed that Jupiter had a rotating vortex in it surface, the term used was “the great red spot”, or when it was noticed that the sun regularly exhibits some dark areas in its surface, these were denominated “solar spots”, nothing fancy, just factual terms.

More examples…, the term used to define an object that absorb radiation, such as planets, stars or even us, is “blackbody” object. The mentioned velocity to overpass the planet’s gravity pull is “escape velocity”; and another as simple as the limit of the observable universe, defined as the “horizon”. The term used in the quick inflation of the early universe? “expansion”, or the term used to define a gravitational singularity? A “black hole”, which is indeed an excellent term as nothing escapes from it, even light, so if you want to “see” one, in reality you wont see anything, as it doesn’t emit any radiation (well, almost). Also, a congregate of stars or even galaxies is known as “cluster”; and there’s more; the term used to denominate the Doppler effect on light as objects move farther away from us? “red shift”, name chosen due to the reddish hue that  light seems to obtain while the light-emitting objects move away from us. Also, the name of the gravitational anomaly in the Centauri supercluster of galaxies that undergo an alteration in its movement by this phenomenon, is the “great attractor” (that by the way, can be considered an excellent name for a comics’ character). Or what about the constant velocity at which light moves? It is of course the “light speed”, and to measure distances, it is commonly used the distance the light travels in a year, or… “light year”, equivalent to 5.88 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km). Also, considering the names used to classify the stars, there are very literal definitions as “red giant”, “super giant” or “white dwarf”, and others less common such as neutron stars, which rotate with great speed and emit two beams of radiation in opposite directions, which are detected by radio-telescopes due the rhythmic detection of these pulses; derived from it, these stars are also known as “pulsars“.

But in all fairness, cosmology and astrophysics use some Latin terms too, like “nebula” term for cloud, or “quantum” term for amount or quantity, and “chromosphere”, which literally translates as “sphere of color” and denotes one of the layers in the sun atmosphere. Also, is often the case that a certain object or phenomena uses the name of the persons who discover it, such as Kelvin degrees, to measure absolute temperature, or the Oort cloud, the shell of icy objects that surround our solar system, named after the astronomer Jan Oort who discover it. Or what about of the famous “Higss Boson”, a fundamental particle that creates the “Higgs field” which is responsible for the mass in all matter; or even the mentioned Doppler effect, the noted change in frequency or wavelength by an observer, as an object moves, which is the reason for the change in the sound’s pitch that can be noticed (as it happened during the passage of an ambulance or patrol), this phenomena was named by the physicist Christian Doppler in 1842. Or the unit used in radio-astronomy to measure the radio wave flow rate received from outer space, the Jansky, named in honor of Karl Gothe Jansky who developed radio astronomy in 1932.

Doppler effect

Doppler effect in light (mrreid.org)

In particle physics this cool naming convention doesn’t end, but it gets more complex though, having some items named after technical terms as “hadrons” (term that’s part of the name for the biggest scientific experiment ever created, the “Large hadron collider” located in Europe), term that comes from the Greek word for large or massive, and was the substitute for the “strongly interactive particles” definition. Protons, part of atom’s nucleus are themselves a type of hadrons. But hadrons aren’t themselves fundamental particles and the same hadron’s constituents share a very interesting name, “quarks”, that originated from a phrase from the the book “Finnegan’s Wake” from James Joyce, an Irish author; the phrase “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” was the inspiration to use this term, as quarks always group in clusters of three, this due to it’s partial charge, for example a proton is formed of two “up” quarks with electric charge of plus two thirds (+2/3), and one “Down” quark, with charge of minus one third (-1/3), when these charges are added they give the resulting proton charge of plus one! Ohh, and they are keep together by one of the four fundamental forces in nature, the also named “strong force!”. It can be mentioned that there are different quark types and all they have interesting names as well, the mentioned “Up” and “Down”, also “Top” and “Bottom” and finally “Charm” and “Strange”.

I don’t consider that astrophysics and cosmology are extremely liberal on their naming convention, but is definitely refreshing to have terms that don’t require a degree to figure out what they describes, and why not, while have a bit of fun on naming the discovered items.

Regards, Alex – ScienceKindle.

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