Monday, April 21, 2008

"Misuse" of science words--a problem?

A concerned student once wrote: "One thing I have noticed lately and become moderately mad at is companies using terms like "quantum" to name and advertise their products. I have seen the term on everything from cigarettes to drills. Do you think the best fix is education?"

"Ca-ching"--the sound of money being deposited into the merchant's bank account. Welcome to the realm of merchandising and global commerce. That realm has very little in common with science. They utilize [ethically correct or not] whatever they can to sell a product. And it's not just science terminology but scientific devices, products [like plastics], and even personalities. The portrait of the avuncular Einstein with baggy pants, disorganized hair, and soulful eyes can potentially sell a million widgets or draw your attention to a special television program or book/magazine. Advent of the atomic age of the 1950's displayed mushroom clouds everywhere, rockets, graphic designs of the atom, scientists throwing massive switches on some atom smasher, and many more--all basically to sell something. Like it or not that’s the way it will be. No particular harm done as long as there are keen citizens aware of such tactics. Live with it and enjoy some it.

"Quantum" can be used elsewhere. There are words in physics that are strictly used to describe events/phenomena such as "quark" that have meaning only there. I am sure your concern for the proper word used in the proper context will forever be an issue. Most people are not prone to discover correct word usage let alone proper spelling. Besides, as I stipulated, many words that may be bothering you are legitimate tools for merchandising. Words come and go and transpose their original meaning and intent--such is a vibrant language.

They don't have to be confined to one realm, say physics, but simply agreed upon in the parameters of definition which is not always demonstrated here at the forums. This is not a misplaced indictment of just the forums but in everyday life including schools. Like I said, be aware of the definitions of words for a particular context and be flexible enough to allow some words to vary in reference and be used elsewhere. Enjoy the richness global languages. You know, to cite a prime example, the German word "weltanschauung" has a specific meaning in historical German philosophy: A comprehensive view of all of the world and all of human life. There isn't a single English equivalent word expressing the particular meaning and thus the word "weltanschauung" has left the exclusive realm of philosophy and found usage in everyday English. The same can be true for all the sciences.

Whatever words are plucked from science the majority of usage in the common world is geared for advertising purposes: "Quantum", "plasma", or whichever word one likes will take on a new coinage in the schematics of language. How many names from astronomy have been used to name automobiles or describe an automobile’s performance? Remember the "Galaxy 500", "Comet", "Nova", "Saturn", or "Rocket 88"? I can't wait for Ford’s "Quarkmobile". Such fun--such enjoyment.

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