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Jan. 21, 2011

Science Dad on the Words of Science

by Vince Harriman

Click to enlarge images

The Giraffatitan. Do I need to explain the name? Image courtesy of Matt Martyniuk

This may sound strange to you, but I feel lucky in my life to have studied both Latin and Ancient Greek. Not only for the cultural and literary aspects, but especially now, as the parent of two curious boys. Latin and Greek has helped me more than just about any other subject I studied -- possibly even including science, which is saying something, since I have two young scientists in the house. Since I think a big part of any education is demystifying the parts that seem hardest, I have made it a habit to explain etymology to Beckett as a way to understand the scientific process and method.

It started, of course, with dinosaurs. Dinosaur nomenclature sounds esoteric and exotic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Dinosaur (terrible lizard) names are so literally descriptive that after learning a few etymologies you want to beg the paleontologist (students of early origins) to be more creative. Pachycephalosaurus, for example, sounds daunting, but is composed of three root words: pachy, thick; cephalo, head; and saurus, lizard. Pachycephalosaurus is a thick headed dinosaur. Here in Maryland we have a rare dinosaur called Astrodon, whose name means star shaped tooth. Tyrannasaurus Rex needs no introduction, and most kids can figure out a dinosaur like Seismosaurus without a trip to the dictionary. Archeopteryx, one of my personal favorites, is early bird, or first bird or even first wing.

And it isn't only dinosaurs. Recently Beckett and I looked at diatomaceous earth (means 'cut in two' because the diatoms often appear to be cut in half or fragmentary) and I displayed a photo of a fossil he found from the Miocene era. Miocene means lesser new -- and is used to denote a relatively recent period in the geological time line. Paleocene -- early new; Pleistocene -- most new; oligocene -- fewer new. You get the idea.

When Beckett and I discuss these I want him to see not only how scientists choose names, but how they struggle to quantify and categorize their findings. Paleontology and geology have a tortured timeline not because scientists have failed, but because as their knowledge of their science expanded, they needed increasingly descriptive terms to quantify and qualify what they were seeing. Studying the evolving nomenclature of any branch of science is a great way to study the evolution of that science. And learning the etymologies of the words used in science is a great way to reinforce the learning.

Astrodon-the Star Shaped Tooth. Image courtesy of Dimitri Bogdanov

An astronaut is a star sailor. Sputnik is a traveling companion, a planet is a wanderer and an asteriod is a little chunk of star. Calculus, which I will try to explain in an upcoming post, comes from the Latin word for pebble or small stone -- because they were used by the Romans for counting. Geometry means measure the earth -- and there is no better way to explain basic concepts in geometry than getting down on the ground and playing around with rulers or string as the Egyptians did.

Chlorophyll, a word we learned when we did our leaf experiment that describes the molecule that makes leaves green, means-you guessed it-green leaf.

It is hard to believe that when scientists come up with their long and complicated words they are trying to be helpful, and trying to be as literal and descriptive as possible. Here is a fun project -- next time you come across any scientific word, look it up using a good etymological dictionary. You might be surprised how helpful it is!

And please, leave a comment -- I'd love to hear what your favorite words are -- whether scientific (from the Latin meaning knowlege), mathematic (from Greek manthanein, to learn), or philological (Greek again, love of words)...

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Science Dad, AKA Vince Harriman, is a freelance writer living in Annapolis. His two sons, Beckett-6 and Rowan-2 1/2 ask him ‘why’ approximately 6,542 times a day.

About Vince Harriman

Science Dad, AKA Vince Harriman, is a freelance writer living in Annapolis. His two sons, Beckett-6 and Rowan-2 1/2 ask him 'why' approximately 6,542 times a day.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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