Archive for the ‘Language of science’ Category


March 12, 2017

The weather forecast for the US Northeast is dire, calling for a fierce late winter storm, with plenty of snow. Map from the Northeast Weather site on Facebook (link from Eleanor Houck, who lives in the Reading area in southeastern Pennsylvania, right in the red zone):

In some of the forecasts, Eleanor came across the colorful technical term bombogenesis, suggesting a “weather bomb”. New to her, and to me, but it’s been around for a while.


Title generator, Pavlov

November 15, 2015

Two Tom Gauld cartoons in New Scientist, from August 14th and August 31st:




Bacteriological picture books

July 27, 2015

A Tom Gauld cartoon in the latest (July 18th) New Scientist:


Bacteria crossed with children’s picture books.


xkcd on science and math

March 16, 2015

(Only marginally related to linguistics.)

Two xkcd cartoons from the world of science (the fundamental forces of physics) and math/computer science (NP-complete problems):




Rain and the seasons

December 1, 2014

Starting on Friday, we began to get some significant amounts of rain in this area — this after the occasional brief (at most a few hours) and tiny (on the order of .02 inches) bits of rainfall during the past month. People complained about our being in a drought, and indeed we are, but it’s last year’s drought; what we were in until recently was just California’s “dry season”, the roughly seven months of the year when it virtually never rains.

We have two kinds of seasons out here: the more-or-less standard set of four seasons in the mid-latitude northern hemisphere, with a cyclic pattern of changes in day length and temperatures, and the accompanying changes in plant life (in particular, deciduous trees have their leaves change color and drop in fall, and leaf out in spring); and two rainfall seasons, related to the day-length seasons but distinct from them (the dry season, with its midpoint in summer, and the rainy season, with its midpoint in winter). With the onset of the rainy season, grasses and similar plants turn from brown to green: the hills turn green for Christmas! Meanwhile, there are plants that come into bloom in all four of the day-length seasons, including winter; we have quite a few winter-blooming plants, many of which I’ve posted about on this blog.

There’s considerable variation in all of this, some of it having to do with latitude, elevation, and closeness to the ocean, some of it with more obscure causes. In a perfect rainy season, we’d have steady rainfall most of the day for most days over several months. I’ve experienced a few of those. But much can go wrong.

Last year we had a terrible drought, so that creeks, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers were not replenished by winter rains in the lower elevations, and hardly any snowpack accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas.

Some years we’ve had the opposite problem, with torrential rains producing flooding and mudflows. My first winter in California was a year of disastrous rainfall, and we’ve experienced others since then.

Now for some weather overview, as we pray for a good rainy season, starting now.


The experts speak

October 25, 2014

Science writer Carl Zimmer in the NYT yesterday, in the middle of “As Ebola Spreads, So Have Several Fallacies”:

Recently on “Fox News Sunday,” the political commentator George F. Will said, “There are now doctors who are saying, ‘We’re not so sure that it can’t be in some instances transmitted by airborne.’ ”

When another guest on the show started to explain that experts have said this is not true, Mr. Will interrupted to say, “Every expert that you’ve seen. Here we go again.”

A familiar rhetorical move, in which “experts” (or “authorities” or “scientists”) are disparaged as sources of information, on the grounds that they are just one source of information among many, and that all these sources are just matters of opinion, each as valid as any other (for instance, the opinions of political commentators).

Frequently, these disparagements are backed up by the claim that “experts”, “authorities”, and “scientists” are in fact biased sources of information, because these people have a personal stake in the matter: their reputations, positions, income, and so on hinge on what they do. (I recall the days of the wars over smoking, when representatives of the tobacco industry attacked the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association in just these terms, as “special interests”.)

I’m familiar with the disparagement of “experts” etc. (especially linguists and lexicographers) in discussions of usage, where it’s vexing that so many people assume that all opinions on usage are equally valid, and that the work of professionals should in fact be dismissed because it’s biased. In many contexts, not a lot hinges on the outcomes of these confrontations, though many of us have pointed out that the rejection of expert information about language can have grave consequences in some contexts, especially in education.

But when we’re dealing with matters of life and death (as in responses to Ebola), the stakes are immediately and urgently higher. I won’t try to assess George Will’s motives here, but he is disparaging statements of fact (as far as this is known) in favor of fallacious rumors, and that, I think, is just wicked. (Don’t get me started on Bobby Jindal.)

Our playful scientists

October 1, 2014

Sprites, elves, trolls, gnomes, and pixies!

From the NYT Science Times yesterday (9/30), “On the Hunt for a Sprite on a Midsummer’s Night” [oh, the rhyme; science writing has tons of language play] by Sandra Blakeslee, beginning:

Armed with sensitive cameras and radio telescopes, [Thomas] Ashcraft hunts for sprites — majestic emanations of light that flash for an instant high above the thunderheads, appearing in the shapes of red glowing jellyfish, carrots, angels, broccoli, or mandrake roots with blue dangly tendrils. (Weather buffs call the tall, skinny ones “diet sprites.”) No two are alike.

And they are huge — tens of miles wide and 30 miles from top to bottom. But because they appear and vanish in a split-second, the naked eye tends to perceive them only as momentary flashes of light. It takes a high-speed camera to capture them in detail.



September 27, 2013

From Gregory Ward, a link to a piece by Jesse Bering in aeon magazine on perversions, “Atheists and homosexuals were called perverts once. Why do we still see perversion where no harm is done?” (excerpts from his new book, Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us). The background:

In 1656, the British lexicographer Thomas Blount included the following entry for the verb ‘pervert’ in his Glossographia (a book also known by the more cumbersome title A Dictionary Interpreting the Hard Words of Whatsoever Language Now Used in Our Refined English Tongue): ‘to turn upside down, to debauch, or seduce’. … In Blount’s time, and for several hundred years after he was dead and buried, a pervert was simply a headstrong apostate who had turned his or her back on the draconian morality of the medieval Church, thereby ‘seducing’ others into a godless lifestyle.



January 4, 2012

Yesterday’s Scenes From a Multiverse:

Not Science Wizards, but Science Bastards. Hosted, of course, by a mad scientist.


Nothing into something

December 4, 2011

From the New Scientist of November 19th (a special issue on “Nothing”), this cute play on words by Brian Greene in his introductory column (variously entitled “The importance of nothing” and “Nothingness: Why nothing matters”):

When applied to a region of space that by any intuitive, classical measure would be deemed empty, such quantum fluctuations ensure that particles pop in and out of existence and fields fluctuate frantically. And this activity can be measured. Place two metal plates close together in otherwise empty space and an imbalance in microscopic jitters outside and between the plates forces them together: nothing can make objects move. (link)

In addition to pieces on physics, the issue also has one on the history of zero and one on the construction of numbers from the null set.