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Wonderful Words of Science I


asimov-robotI found a wonderful book at my local library – Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery – which has inspired this post (and a planned three more).  Asimov’s book, which sounds absolutely dreary – a year by year recounting of the most important scientific discoveries – was actually surprisingly page-turning (and there were 654 pages to turn).

You might think a science book written in 1989 must be horribly out of date by now, but Asimov (throughout his career of science writing) uses two techniques that partially inure his science books and essays from becoming dated.

First, his science writing is almost always historical to a greater or lesser degree – he describes classic experiments (especially in his favorite domains of physics, astronomy, and chemistry) which, by virtue of being classic, are both important to know and generally not well known.  (I can attest to this having learned my history of neuroscience long after graduate school where I concentrated on the recent literature.)

Second, he often spends some time on etymology – the study of the origin of words.  Sometimes the facts of terminological derivation are trivial, but I’ve been impressed time and again how knowing the origin of some scientific term greatly enhances my understanding of the concept in question, and more, my ability to remember details about that concept later.  There’s an incredible power in knowing where a term came from – it’s a built-in mnemonic that can often unlock details that would otherwise remain on the tip of the tongue (or farther away than that).

And so, with a debt to Asimov (plus some additional investigation of my own), I present some of my favorite etymological discoveries from his Chronology.  Numbers in parentheses are the page in which they appear in the hardcover version of his book.  I plan two sequels to this post.  The first, Wonderful Words of Science II, will discuss Words from Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics, and the second, Wonderful Words of Science III, will be Words of the Periodic Table.

Words From Technology

Robot (586).  We might as well begin with robot, since this post was inspired by Asimov and he is credited with having invented the word robotics, a word which he presumed was already in the dictionary.  Robot is credited to another author – the Czech playwright Karel Capek – who used it in a play called R.U.R. (1920), an acronym for Rossum’s Universal Robots.  The Czech word robota means “forced labor” and is related to the word rab, which means “slave”.  What I find most fascinating about all of this is that our word slave likely comes from our word Slav which refers to the Slavic peoples of Eastern and Central Europe.  Just think about how often the borders of the countries of Eastern Europe have changed (the bygone SSRs, Yugoslavia, Prussia, Austrio-Hungary, Czechoslovakia) – the Slavs were, unfortunately, often subjected to forced labor and servitude at the hands of conquering powers.  And so it is remarkable that the word robot, which essentially meant “slave,” was invented by a Slav.  The term was further popularized and a new term, robotics, introduced by Asimov, whose Russian origins might also be considered Slavic.

Photography (303).  “Photo-” and “-graph” are useful prefixes and suffixes to know as they show up a lot in our language.  “Photo-” means “light.” “-graph” means “writing” or “recording,” and derives from an older word meaning “to scratch onto” – as in, to scratch onto clay tablets.  The ability for people to record their thoughts in some more-or-less permanent form must be one of the single most important events in human history (so much so that the time before writing is typically referred to as “prehistory”).  The ability to record images – actual scenes – is certainly another, and it wasn’t until about 1839 that a reasonable method existed to allow that to occur.  Louis Daguerre used silver salts which darkened on exposure to light; Daguerre’s breakthrough was in learning how to freeze that process so that only those areas touched by light were darkened.  Writing is usually done with black ink on a white paper, and thus, writing also consists of a darkening process.  The word photography, then, is a rather poetic analogy – light leaving a permanent record.

Volume (35).  In geometry we learn to calculate the volume – the internal area – of a sphere.  When I publish a scientific article, it appears in a particular volume of a scientific journal (and more generally, books, especially those that are part of a series, are referred to as volumes).  Is there any relationship between these words, or is this just coincidence?  Indeed, the words have the same etymology – volume comes from the Latin “to roll up.”  The internal area of a sphere or, by analogy, of any enclosed solid, is the area rolled up – surrounded by the solid’s skin.  What does this have to do with books or journals?  Before the invention of true books – with individual pages cut and bound together – long pieces of writing were written on long sheets of parchment which, when stored, were rolled up.

Atlas (116).  Speaking of books, we’ve all used books called Atlases, which contain maps.  I never thought this was particularly mysterious – many people know that Atlas was a god of Greek mythology – a Titan who held up the world.  Maps are of the world, and Atlas held up the world, so there seemed to be connection enough.  But the connection turns out to be a bit more specific than this.  Maps are tricky things, particularly maps of large areas of Earth, because a map is 2-dimensional and the Earth is a sphere.  If you were to cut a big chunk out of a basketball, for example, and tried to press it flat, you’d find you couldn’t without ripping the skin of the ball.  Thus, 2-dimensional maps are always wrong in some way.  It was the Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator (a Latinized version of Gerhard Kremer) who, in a map book published in 1568, greatly improved the accuracy of 2-dimensional maps by using a geometrical technique called cylindrical projection.  A drawing of the Greek Titan Atlas was put on the cover of the book.  The book was so useful and so influential and seen by so many eyes that it began to be referred to as the Atlas in a bit of spontaneous word coinage – and so too has every book of its type since.

Dirigible (419).  The word blimp has obscure origins, despite its recency, and seems somehow unfitting for an aircraft deserving of a more dignified name.  Early airships were called zeppelins after inventor Ferdinand Zeppelin, and Zeppelin himself called the vehicle a dirigible balloon, or dirigible.  Zeppelin’s dirigible, first flown in 1900, is a nice example of how technological innovations are sometimes built on a series of unrelated discoveries.  As the full term dirigible balloon implies, the dirigible owes its creation in part to the first successful balloon flight in Paris in 1783, which itself relied on earlier experiments confirming the change in the volume of a gas with temperature (hence hot-air balloon).  Balloons were at the mercy of air currents, however, so it was desirable to fix a balloon with an engine – but the steam engines of the 1800s were incredibly heavy.  In 1876, however, the internal combustion engine was invented, which could be made much smaller.  To propel a balloon through the air, even still, would put a great deal of stress on the balloon, and so Zeppelin realized he needed an elongated shape of some rigid substance.  But metals, too, were too heavy for the job, until 1886, when a method was finally discovered to extract aluminum – which is both light and strong – from its ores.  Aluminum was plentiful but had been extremely difficult to isolate.  With all of these discoveries in place by 1900, Zeppelin could launch his lighter than air ship and steer it.  The word dirigible was chosen from the Latin dirigere – to direct.  [A commenter points out that Zeppelin’s airship is a dirigible but not a blimp – the word blimp is reserved for non-rigid airships like the Goodyear blimp.  I have slightly modified this paragraph in response.]

Helicopter (540).  The word helicopter derives from the word helix, which describes the shape of a coiled spring, and pteron, the Greek word for “wing” (think pterodactyl or archeopteryx).  Now, “wing” makes sense – although the helicopter doesn’t have wings like a bird or a plane it does “take wing” and soar through the air – but why helix?  The propeller atop the helicopter goes around in circles, it doesn’t go around in a coil.  But imagine watching a helicopter rising from the tarmac in slow motion.  As the propeller is turning, it is also rising, because the whole vehicle is rising.  If you trace the position of one of the propeller’s blades as it both spins and rises, you will see it traces out the shape of a helix, a coiled spring.

Clock (89).  Curiously, the word clock comes from the French word cloche, meaning “bell”.  The first crude clocks of the type we are familiar with today were invented in the 14th Century, and they were expensive to produce and required a fair amount of space, since they relied on weights pulled by gravity.  So here was an incredibly useful invention that very few had the resources to own.  The solution was to have one clock per town, to mount it high in a tower, and to ring out the hours with a loud bell, since sound can travel a great distance, around corners, in the dark, and even into people’s homes, obviating the necessity of having to remember to look at the clock.  So intimately was the association of time-keeping and bell-ringing that you didn’t have one without the other for centuries – and thus they share a name.  You can remember this any time someone gets pedantic and tells you that “Actually, Big Ben in London refers to a bell, not a clock.”  You can say, “Well actually, the word clock means bell, so I wasn’t wrong at all.”

Words From Medicine

Quarantine (91).  Long before the germ-theory of disease, it was recognized that some illnesses traveled from person to person.  This was perhaps particularly a problem for busy port cities such as Venice, which was at its height during a time when fears of the Bubonic Plague were still palpable.  The city fathers of Venice, beginning in the early 15th Century, dictated that strangers wishing to enter the city must wait out an observation period to prove they were healthy before entering.  This waiting period eventually became 40 days, certainly a conservative duration.  Asimov speculates the number may have been chosen from the Biblical story of Noah.  In any event, the French word for forty is quarante, from which we get the word quarantine.

Vaccination (244).  Speaking of the germ-theory of disease, medicine finally began to get a handle on the prevention of diseases with the work of Edward Jenner.  One of Europe’s most-feared diseases prior to Jenner was smallpox (smallpox comes from the Old English word pocc, which describes the pimply blisters on the skin, and small, to distinguish the disease from syphillis, a disease known as the Great Pox).  Jenner was intrigued by the conventional wisdom that people who had contracted cowpox (typically milkmaids) were immune to smallpox.  (Asimov suggests that the cliche of the “pretty milkmaid” refers to the milkmaids’ avoidance of smallpox, a disfiguring disease, thanks to this immunity.)  Since cowpox is a rather mild disease in humans, Jenner undertook an experiment of dubious ethics in 1796: he injected a boy with pus from a cowpox blister, which gave the boy cowpox.  Once that disease ran its course, the boy was injected with pus from a smallpox blister – and the boy did not get smallpox.  The Latin word for “cow” is vacca, so cowpox is “vaccinia” – and so Jenner used the term vaccination to describe his smallpox inoculation.  Jenner took advantage of a vaccine in nature, but Louis Pasteur took matters a step further in 1881.  He recovered the anthrax-causing bacteria from infected sheep who had survived the disease and heated the bacteria to weaken them.  He took this attenuated bacterial preparation and injected it into half a herd of healthy sheep and then exposed all of these sheep to anthrax.  The inoculated animals survived.  Although anthrax and cowpox are not related, and although Pasteur had worked with sheep, he generalized the term vaccination in tribute to Jenner’s discovery.

Allergies (423).  While studying immune sera, the French physiologist Charles Richet discovered that, in some cases, an animal’s immune response to a foreign agent could be so strong it lead to death.  From the words for “over protection” he named this phenomenon anaphylaxis (similarly, the word prophylaxis would mean “first protection” and is used to describe preventative measures in medicine).  Before long it was discovered that this phenomenon can occur not only with immune sera, but with the natural learning process of the immune system.  In these cases the harmful effects of the immune system are referred to as an allergy.  I was surprised – and in this case somewhat mystified – to learn that the etymology of this term, according to Asimov, is “other work”.  (As a chemist, Asimov is familiar with allo- prefix to signify variations of molecules – other shapes, other functions, other activity.)  The online etymological dictionary provides a more sensible translation, though – since “other” can also mean “strange”, allergy can be “strange work” or “strange activity” – and it certainly seems that allergies are an expression of a strangely operating immune system.

Forensic (386).  As the onslaught of CSIs and NCISs and similar TV programs have made us aware, forensic sciences – forensic medicine, forensic psychology – deal with the ways in which the cops can figure out who the bad guys were.  Forensic techniques include fingerprinting, profiling, DNA testing, etc.  Frankly, I’m skeptical of the field – it’s viewed by the public as being far more accurate in many instances than it actually is – and I’m getting bored of the TV tropes surrounding forensic science.  But the word does have an interesting etymology.  It’s related to the Latin word “forum” which referred to public spaces in Old Rome and is attached to modern expressions that likewise deal with public exchanges (online forum, open forum, public forum).  The word forensic, then, implies sciences that make it possible (in theory) to take what someone would like to keep private and hidden – the commission of a crime – and bring it out into the open.

Words From Biology

Meiosis (379).  In 1882, Walther Flemming reported on the process of cell division by examining cells at different stages of the process under a microscope.  A salient feature of the initial stages of cell division involved chromosomes lining up with one another in what looked like a long thread inside the cell’s nucleus.  Since the Greek word for thread is mitos, he named cell division mitosis, which means “the process of making thread.”  It would be a long time before biologists would understand the function of chromosomes, but at least they recognized that each species had a characteristic number of chromosomes – and during mitosis this number doubled so that when the cell divided, each daughter cell would receive a full complement.  Except – in 1883, Edouard van Beneden showed that in ova and sperm – the sex cells – the doubling process did not occur.  He therefore used the term meiosis to describe cell division in sex cells.  This is another Greek word, meaning “a lessening.”

Clone (618).  In the 1960s, techniques were worked out to remove the nucleus (containing the organism’s DNA) from a somatic cell (a cell from somewhere in the body) and transplant that nucleus into an empty egg cell (ovum).  In some cases these ova could be coaxed into normal development, resulting in a baby that was genetically identical (an identical twin) of the animal that supplied the DNA, rather than an organism that was a genetic mix of mother and father.  Interestingly, the word clone came to be used to describe both the organism (a clone of the parent) and the process (to clone an organism).  Interesting because clone means “twig” – and describes the much older horticultural technique of grafting a twig from one bush or tree onto another.




  1. A note on dirigibles. A blimp is an airship that lacks a supporting skeleton. The origin of the word blimp is said to be from the US military, which once classed airships as type A – rigid and type B- limp. Those responsible for taking care of the non-rigid airships adopted “blimp” as a neologism. Zeppelins (aka dirigibles) with a supporting skeleton are not blimps. All blimps are airships, but not all airships are blimps.

  2. […] is the sequel post to Wonderful Words of Science I, in which I cover some of my favorite derivations of words from science.  Since my starting point […]

  3. […] is the sequel post to Wonderful Words of Science I and Wonderful Words of Science II, in which I cover some of my favorite derivations of words from […]

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