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Language and Science: Words of Beauty

Creativity is at the heart of science. Before, during and after all the hours of data collection and number crunching, there are sparks of inspiration. For me, communicating about the never-ending fascination of my research and science in general is a balance between reporting the data to inform people, and making it dance on the page to inspire them, something which isn't easy in scientific articles.

Even if I can't always give into colourful metaphors and emotional allusions, I do enjoy the texture of  scientific language, that is, the words. I love finding new terms in my research (or just in general) that describe cool things or processes or ideas, or just sound mysterious, romantic or somehow evoke an emotion.

Here's my collection of scientific words of beauty, updated as I come across them. Suggestions welcome!
Update 07-05-2013- Thanks to Alex Brown, a blogger at SciLogs, for sharing this page via his blog, with thoughts about language and science!

- Endling - just recently heard this, and it inspired me to start this list. It is used for the last living representative of a species. Too tragic...

- Chasma - planetary geology term for very deep, steep sided depression; a slash through rock. Just a fabulous romantic word.

- Cortex - for me this is the 'rind' on the outside of stone, most often flint, nodules. It can be chalky white if the flint has come fresh from an outcrop, or battered and thin if it's been eroded into secondary deposits like hillwash or gravels. I like the sound and what it can tell me about the stages of tool production present in an archaeological assemblage: more cortex = more primary stages of knapping.

- Benthic - things of the deep sea, as in benthic fauna. It lisps out of your lips beautifully.

- Muskeg - arctic and boreal zone of low, boggy ground. A great rough sound, and also probably landscapes common to Neanderthals living in Marine Isotope Stage 3, around 60-40,000 years ago.
- Abyssal - the really alien realms of the sea, below 4000m, which never receive light. Instantly calls up monsters lurking in the deep.

- Parsec - sounds like a SciFi term, but it's a real astronomical measure of distance, equivalent to almost 31 TRILLION kilometers. its origins lie in geometrical measures used early in astronomy to determine distance, but it just sounds like it's from the future.

- Tundra and Taiga - two more artic ecological terms. Tundra is found further north or higher up, where conditions are extreme. Rough grasses, sedges, mosses and dwarf trees form a carpet that becomes bejewelled with colour in spring and autumn. Taiga is essentially tundra, with scattered trees of the northern forest growing on top (pine, birch, spruce, larch), before it become the boreal forest proper in warmer areas.

- Ionosphere - a term for the upper part of the atmosphere, which becomes ionized (charged) by radiation from the sun. There's just something mysterious about this word; and I love its brief mention in the Battlestar Galactica extended pilot when they reach Ragnar Anchorage: "Crossing into the ionosphere.."

- Petrichor - this intriguing word comes via Sarah Hörst, planetary scientist who works on the atmosphere of Titan (too cool!). It was created in 1964 by two researchers, Bear and Thomas, to describe the distinctive scent that comes after rain falls on dry earth, caused by plants releasing oils into the soil during dry periods. See the wikipedia entry for details of their paper.

- Tholin - I couldn't not have this word for several reasons, and it deserves a longer than usual entry. What it means is extremely cool, plus one of the greatest ever science writers, Carl Sagan, coined it; finally it's also the research area of the aforementioned Sarah Hörst (see her excellent page for details, plus you can see photos of her *making* it on Twitter). So, I just gave you a clue: tholins are substances that can be produced experimentally.
In fact Sagan, with colleague Kishare, gave a perfectly poetic description of what a tholin is when they published on it in 1979: "star tar". Tholins are an amazing example of the universe's weird ability to self-construct:  when you apply energy, in this case UV or a spark, to various gases they spontaneously form big- read complicated- organic molecules. This would be merely interesting in itself, but it becomes potentially profound because this process is proposed as one of the ways complex molecules formed early in Earth's history, which, eventually, coalesced into magical self-replicating chemical machines- life.

- Chrysalis - This has a mysterious sound, almost like an incantation- and its material representative shrouds a process that has fascinated people for centuries: the transition from immature insect larvae into their full, often beautiful, adult incarnations. Writing this reminded me that Cocoon is another rather lovely word, although here the cloak is silky rather than hard. Thanks to Karen James (director of the amazing HMS Beagle Project) for suggesting chrysalis.

- Mastodon - The American (Central and North) take on woolly mammoths. As a Neanderthal Nerd, I do love Mammuthus primegenius, the European mammoth, but mastodons win for having the cooler name. Even though it's root meaning is fairly banal (Greek words for breast and tooth), the actual sound of 'mastodon' is impressive, somehow heavy and stampy... just like a herd of these huge beasts.

- Xeric - A gaspy breath of air this word, with a hard touchdown. Probably only because I know it means extreme aridity, but it always brings to mind bright hard light, and gritty desert winds.

- Implementiferous - Wonderfully antiquarian, this is a word you'll come across if you read the accounts of early cave excavations. It's used to mean "deposits with loads of artefacts in them"; in most cases, they're talking about stone tools (for bones, you get 'ossiferous', not quite as self-satisfied sounding). I try and use it when I can get away with it because it makes me laugh.

- Arkose - A geological term, specifically for coarse sandstone-type rocks with 25% or more feldspar (a mineral). This sounds like a personal name to me, maybe even something a mountain might call itself- and it has a drawn-out feel as you say it, like the long stretching-through-time existence of rock itself.

- Regolith - Another geology word, this time referring to the loose material covering the bedrock of a planet. I especially like it in its extraterrestrial context, because it reminds me of how bizarre some of the things floating around the solar system are. On Earth we have regolith in the form of grains and lumps of rock ('soil' includes biotic ingredients), but on other worlds it's stranger. Think of the talcum-fine imprints of the Apollo astronauts' feet on the surface of the moon; on Titan, results from the Cassini Huygens probe suggest there may be deserts of ice sand. Even very small asteroids have loose, unconsolidated surfaces, from boulders to dust in size, and remarkably, a Japanese mission called Hayabusa has actually returned some of these tiny grains to Earth.


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