100 science words

Just in time for college graduations comes a new book, "100 Science words every college graduate should know." It's an interesting browse. Others have mentioned it (and Chad even did a pretty nice breakdown of words by discipline); I just thought I'd add my two cents.

From the introduction, they note:

This book presents 100 words in science that every college graduate, regardless of major or specialization, ought to know. The words were selected because they represent the kind of vocabulary that a person who is literate in science should understand. The words are not the most fundamental scientific terms that are the substance of textbooks. Rather, the editors have sought out words that are both essential to understanding science's powerful explanations and interesting in their own right.

As such, these aren't the most basic scientific words, but are still "essential" and "interesting." A big detraction for me as a scientist is that they don't mention the methodology they used to choose these "essential" and "interesting" words, however. This doesn't stop the book from being useful, of course, but it does leave me curious as to how they came to some of their choices.

I wonder this because some of the choices seem a bit dubious, and I'm not sure how they made the cut. For example, #52: kwashiorkor, a form of protein malnutrition. Obviously this is something that interests me as an epidemiologist, but I'm not quite sure how it's one of the top words every college graduate should know. Similarly with #66: pahoehoe: "a type of lava having a smooth, swirled surface." (I have to admit here that I had no clue what this one was, so perhaps my cluelessness contributes to my confusion as to the inclusion of this word. Geologists, perhaps, would see why it's more obvious).

Overall, though, the book is interesting, and the definitions provided for the words selected were informative (while brief). A nice little trivia book for the college grad--especially those who could use some boning up on their science.

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As someone who works in geology I have heard the term pahoehoe: a ropey form of lava (as opposed to aa: the crumbly kind). I don't see it as a particularly necessary term to know though. And kwashiorkor? They must have been smoking something to pick that, unless they just liked how weird the word looks.

I don't see those as necessary terms either. I think it should be 100 words to make you sound like you know science.

Here's one - Grammar

If that's an accurate quote of the title, perhaps I'll wait until it's been proofread.

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)


The Berkley Groks had the editor on for an interview. He said they chose the words so that there would be a representative mix from the different disciplines and that would be in the news or something educated people should be familiar with. They also had to include words for each letter and some, e.g. K, didn't have too many to choose from.

You can listen to their podcast here

"kwashiorkor": Actually, I think that's an inspired pick -- the associations lead from medicine through sociology, economics and national development, and even hooks in biotechnology through the "Green Revolution".

I'm not familiar with "pahoehoe", but I'm already thinking of questions about it: what language is that from? where *else* is it found? where does it come from? what can you do with it?

While I haven't read the book, I can certainly appreciate the virtues of starting with some odd word, and finding out more and more about it. Of course, this has gotten much easier with the Web -- no more paging through those massive dictionaries and encyclopedias. (Awww....)

(PS: Your typekey sign-in link says "the blog owner hasn't signed up..." ???)

By David Harmon (not verified) on 31 May 2006 #permalink

Well they did say they were looking for words interesting in their own right, which might explain kwashiorkor and pahoehoe (I think 'aa' is the more interesting word). Doesn't explain why college graduates should know them though, as opposed to many other "interesting" words.

It's just a subjective list picked by committee, and like all such lists is subject to "Why is that one on the list?" and "What about this one?".

As a paleontologist, I have to teach on the geological side of things as well as the biological side of things. And pahoehoe is definitely NOT one of the 100 terms I would pick.

In fact, I'd rather see this reorganized as "100 phrases" or "100 concepts" from all the sciences. In that case, I think the following would be a good summary of geology: "geologic timescale", "plate tectonics", "rock cycle", "climate change", and "fossils" (so long as one could then deal with these concepts in more detail, and thereby address more of the specifics: e.g., structure of the Earth's interior under "plate tectonics").

Thank you all for the positive comments! (I am the editor mentioned above who was interviewed on the Berkeley Groks show.) It is true that one could come up with a completely different set of 100 words. I'm not sure how one would methodologically make such a list; nor do we imply that there aren't other, more important concepts in science. We hoped his book would provoke thought, discussion, and even spur people to pursue further topics they find interesting.

Yes, the choice is very subjective. (In 100 Words Every Word Lover Should Know, for example, we chose the word "facetious" simply because it contains all five vowels in alphabetical order. [Another such word, abstemious, we had already used in a previous title.])

Throughout the 100 Words series, we have striven to be informative and interesting. For this book, we took pride in presenting complex concepts in a way that people who are not experts in the field can understand by including informative essays with each word that go beyond the basic definition.

By Steve Kleinedler (not verified) on 02 Jun 2006 #permalink

"We hoped his book would provoke thought, discussion, and even spur people to pursue further topics they find interesting."

Doesn't sound like "100 words you should know" to me... sounds more like "100 nifty science words you might enjoy talking about."

I mean, "kwashiorkor?" THAT? Come on.

How about something actually relevant (though not as catchy) like "causation" and "correlation?" Those are misunderstood by almost everyone, and (unlike kwashiorkor) ARE things every college grad should know.

"It is true that one could come up with a completely different set of 100 words."

This is ridiculous, and you--hopefully--know it. The fact that 100 different people would list 10 highly different books for "best American literature of the 20th century" does not excuse the idiot who puts a Harlequin novel on the list.

If you just want to sell books--hey, that's your job. Bit be honest about it, willya?

..oh yeah: And it's not even that GOOD!!

I mean, I looked at the Amazon page for "absolute zero." Let's dissect this, which (being one of the first things, and the one on Amazon) is presumably among the better writeups.

The first 1/3 is a decent definition:
"The lowest possible temperature, at which all molecules have the least possible amount of kinetic energy."

Of course, even that isn't so hot. Assuming you're a college grad who doesn't know much, you can't even address the common high school question "does everything stop moving at absolute zero?" You don't see any information at all on what might happen to the electrons vs the havier particles. You don't see any indicator of which "least possible amount" of kinetic energy is.

The second 1/3 of the writeup talks about things a little:

"At temperatures approaching absolute zero, the physical characteristics of some substances change significantly. For example, some substances change from electrical insulators to conductors, while other change from conductors to insulators. Absolute zero has never been reached in laboratory experiments, but using laser traps and other techniques, scientists at MIT have been able to cool rubidium atoms to 10^-9 K."

This section? Pretty useless. You can read it and say "hmm, cool!" but you don't know much about it. (BTW, was it scientists AT mit, or scientists FROM mit?) You don't see a single mention of a bose-einstein condensate. You don't see any mention of the fact that they measured a significant reduction in the speed of light in their condensate (which is niftier than conductivity). You have no idea what a "laser trap and other technique" is; you don't get any numbers for comparison, not even the 4 degree K "outer space" number we have all seen floating around. You don't even know why it's important to study, or whether we ever WILL reach it in experiments.

The only thing you know is that is is very, very, cold. Yay!

The third section explains the background of the words "absolute" and "zero."

This is handy, because since (after having read this) you haven't learned a damn thing relevant to science with which you can imprss your friends, you need to show you're smart somehow.

sigh. THIS gets published?

Pahoehoe is from Hawaiian, as well as aa. Because they essentially live on volcanoes, like the Inuit who have a variety of different terms for snow.

I think it's good to know a bit from everything (like the 18th century approach to college, where you would take a lot of classics and science, and pick everything else up from that context), but I do agree that pahoehoe and kwashiorkor might be pushing it for instance if you're a history major in college. I think the focus should be more on understanding the concepts behind what causes or what might be caused by protein deficiencies or how or why lava might form different shapes. (yes, I'm in physics)