Field of Science

Weird words of science: scientist

Woman teaching geometry to men
illus. 14th century copy of Euclid's Elements
Scientist may not sound like a weird word, but when it was first coined, it was thought "unpalatable," along with (understandably) "nature-poker." Recently my sister tagged me in a Facebook post linking to a series of articles on women in science. She thought it interesting that the word had been coined to honor the work of a woman in science.
"Not only did Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville (December 26, 1780–November 28, 1872) defy the era’s deep-seated bias against women in science, she was the very reason the word “scientist” was coined: When reviewing her seminal second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which Somerville wrote at the age of 54, English polymath and Trinity College master William Whewell was so impressed that he thought it rendered the term “men of science” obsolete and warranted a new, more inclusive descriptor to honor Somerville’s contribution to the field." — from Maria Popova and Lisa Congdon's 2013 project The Resurrectionists
Oddly enough, I'd read William Whewell's review of Somerville's On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences while writing an essay about the public conception of scientists, and my recollection was that the coining of scientist, while reported in this review, was not in fact spurred by Somerville's work.  So I went back and read it again.

Whewell was certainly impressed with Somerville and her book, but his tale of the creation of the word 'scientist' makes no mention of honoring Somerville or her contribution.  About the only person Whewell seems impressed with in this context is the "ingenious gentlemen," thought to be himself!
A curious illustration of this result maybe observed in the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively. We are informed that this difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at their meetings at York, Oxford, and Cambridge, in the last three summers. There was no general term by which these gentlemen could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits. Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr. Coleridge, both in his capacity of philologer and metaphysician ; savans was rather assuming, besides being French instead of English; some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as sciolist, economist, and atheist—but this was not generally palatable; others attempted to translate the term by which the members of similar associations in Germany have described themselves, but it was not found easy to discover an English equivalent for natur-forscher. The process of examination which it implies might suggest such undignified compounds as nature-poker, ornature-peeper, for these naturae curiosi; but these were indignantly rejected." [from the Quarterly Review, 1834, emphasis mine]
Interestingly, Wherwell does tackle the issue of women in philosophy/science:  "Our readers cannot have accompanied us so far without repeatedly feeling some admiration rising in their minds, that the work of which we have thus to speak is that of a woman."  It's a fascinating read, in which you can see the threads of imagery that is still current (and still unsupported by data) about the innate differences between the minds of men and women.

And in the end, scientist would catch on, by the early 20th century it was far eclipsed "natural philosopher" as the preferred general term.

Science at Play

The Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia's latest exhibit is called "Science at Play" — and even if you can't get to Philadelphia, you can browse some of the materials on Tumblr, including animated videos of experiences — good and bad — with chemistry kits.

When my kids were young, I encouraged them to play with science stuff.  I wanted them to be willing to get messy, to make mistakes, to think about stuff where it wasn't perfectly clear what was going on and to begin to understand that protective gear wasn't a ritual or a costume, but part of thinking through how to reduce risk.  That you could make your own equipment.

Though kits have gotten far more tame over the years — no more uranium ore or instructions for making ammonia in your hand — there are still commercial kits that let kids play not only responsibly, but productively, with chemistry.  The new MEL kits that Todd Bookman's piece on chemistry kits for The Pulse (listen here - full disclosure, I was interviewed for this segment) highlights are particularly cool in that they plug into another important skill for budding scientists:  how to share your work.  The kit comes with a lense that you can snap over a cell phone camera, giving you an up close look at what you are doing, and enabling you to share it via social media.

But as important as kits are, I think the ad hoc experiences of doing science are equally critical.  They hone the ability to read instructions (and reveal how much is not revealed in the methods sections of any science communique), encourage a sense of scale and quantitation (how much is 1 gram of something, as opposed to pour in this packet) and help novice scientists get comfortable with tinkering to build apparatus when they don't have exactly what they need. And when tackling a new research problem, do you ever have precisely what you need?

While you can make do with measuring cups and kitchen scales, I'm with the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Erin McLeary, who notes the appeal of having the real stuff in your hands.  These days you can easily and inexpensively acquire a few real beakers, graduated cylinders and other lab equipment -- along with gloves and other protective gear.

So if you're looking for an interesting and unique gift for a kid interested in science, try assembling a small kit and including the instructions and materials for a couple of experiments.  For starters, extracting DNA from dried peas or copper electroplating (yes, it uses something you shouldn't eat - don't and wash your hands) or even the infamous water electrolysis (sans smoldering splint and thereby less risk of singed eyebrows).  Offer to help supervise or be the videographer.

To read more of what I've written about chemistry kits and doing chemistry outside the laboratory see:

"Homemade Chemists" in Nature Chemistry
"Felony Science" at Slate
"Handheld Chemistry" on the blog, about the making of ammonia in your hand

Polysemy and Polyphony: Listening to Messiah

Last spring I wrote a piece for Nature Chemistry on polysemy — the phenomenon where words take on quite different meanings in different contexts. The iconic chemistry example might be mole (the quantity versus the animal versus the verb1), but there's a long list.

So you might think that when I ran into a homograph2 on Twitter the other day, I'd be alert to the possibility. My first thought when the conversation between two chemists about the insights they find in Messiah showed up in my feed they were talking about the classic quantum mechanics text by French physicist Albert Messiah.  Actually, not.  Handel's Messiah was the text under discussion.  Polyphony crashes into polysemy.  And evidence I really am a science geek first and foremost.

The text is still in print, though Albert Messiah died in 2013 at aged 92.   I used Messiah's text when I took a year long course in quantum physics as a graduate student (from the physics department, have exhausted the chemistry offerings as an undergrad). We pronounced his name "mess-ee-uh" rather than "mess-eye-uh," making this technically a homograph (though not a capitonym3).  I wondered today how he might have pronounced his name, is it really a homograph, or did my professor simply choose to pronounce it this way to avoid sounding like an evangelical preacher when he assigned reading?  I dove into the interwebs to see if I could uncover any clues.  I discovered Messiah had been part of the French Resistance in World War II (joining at age 19, the age my youngest son is now), worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton with Niels Bohr and eventually returned to France to teach and write this text.

I also listened to a few minutes of a presentation Messiah gave in 2009 at Le Ecole Polytechnique.  It was oddly moving to hear the voice of someone whose written words I had spent so much time wrestling with almost forty years ago.  And at the end of the questions, I learned how he pronounced his name.

And, on the Sceptical Chymist, Reuben Hudson has a post responding to my column on a different kind of doubling-up in chemical language.

1.  Yes, mole is a verb, to mole a garden is to remove the moles.
2.  Homographs are words that have the same spelling, but different pronunciation (lead and lead).
3.  Capitonyms are homographs with different capitalization.  DEFT and deft.