100 Science Words

One of the perks of my job is that sometimes people send me books for free. Granted, these are mostly introductory physics textbooks, which tend not to be page-turners, but I'm a big fan of books, and I'm a big fan of free stuff, so free books are great.

Thus, when I was contacted by someone from Houghton Mifflin offering me a free copy of their new 100 Science Words Every College Graduate Should Know if I'd say something about it on the blog, of course I agreed. The specific book almost doesn't matter-- this is the sort of behavior I want to encourage among the publishing community: send me free books.

Having agreed to say something in exchange for the book, and having received the book, it follows that I'm going to say something about it. And I will, below the fold:

The book is, as the title flatly states, a collection of 100 science-related words, with definitions. This is apparently a part of a series of "100 Words" books promoting expanded vocabulary in various areas. I'm not entirely sure who the target market for this book is, but it's a nicely put together little book. The various words are defined in short, clearly written paragraphs that ought to make sense to, well, any college graduate, and the definitions of physics terms (which are the ones I know best) do a very good job of putting important concepts in layman's terms. There are also occasional pages highlighting interesting facts associated with one or another of the words, and these include some fun trivia.

There are a few minor problems with the structure, starting with the lack of a table of contents or index. It's not so much that you need it to find anything-- the words are alphabetical, and the whole book is only 116 pages-- but that it would be nice to see all 100 words listed in one place.

Of course, for someone who is not just a college graduate but a scientist, the real fun of a book like this is arguing with its choices of what to include and what to leave out. The breakdown of words by field, for example, looks like this (any inaccuracies stem from the fact that I compiled this tally on a plane with a bad hangover):

Physics: 20

Biology: 30

Chemistry: 3

Geology: 11

Medicine: 14

Math/ Computer Science: 8

Astronomy: 7

Psychology/ Cognitive Sciece: 6

General: 1

(The one term listed under "general" is "theory.")

Biology and medicine combine for almost half of the total, with physics and astronomy accounting for almost half of the remainder. That seems about right to me, but chemists and cognitive scientists might feel a little slighted.

The other possible area of discussion for ScienceBlog types would be the specific terms included or not included. The introduction takes pains to stress that these are "not the most fundamental terms that are the substance of textbooks" but rather "words that are both essential to understanding science's powerful explanations and interesting in their own right." Still, "piezoelectric effect" makes the list? Not to mention "estivation," which is sort of cool, but hardly essential information, unless you're planning to go on Jeopardy or something.

And, of course, if there are words on the list that don't belong, there must be words left off that ought to be there. I'd nominate astronomy as the most wronged field in this respect (though physics has one glaring omission), as fairly critical words like "supernova" are absent (though it sort of sneaks into the definition of "black hole"). You could argue that the meaning of "supernova" is so widely known that there's no need to include it, but then, the book defines "megabyte," so I don't think that holds water. And then there's "gamma ray burst" which is less will known, and certainly cooler than piezoelectricity.

I'm half tempted to make a contest ouf ot this, and award the book as a prize to whoever can come up with the most important term that is left off the list (the glaring physics omission, naturally), but that would probably seem like a cynical attempt to generate comment traffic. If you feel like posting suggestions, though, go right ahead...


More like this

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,…
This coming fall term, I'll be teaching Astronomy 052, "Relativity, Black Holes, and Quasars," because the guy who has traditionally taught it (a radio astronomer who studies active galactic nuclei) has to do other courses instead. But I said "Well, hell, I've written a popular audience book…
Cognitive Daily is a reflection of my teaching. In fact, one of the ways I pick articles for Dave to discuss on the blog is to pass along articles I've used in class. It has occurred to us that our Research categories (like Movement and Exercise, or Video Games / Technology) are not the most…
We're once again in the "things are in the pipeline, but nothing has been posted recently" mode, which is a good excuse for some Amazon neepery. Since the AP review came out, and was printed in 20-odd papers, the sales rank has climbed back into the four digits, and has spent the last few days…

What does the book say about "uncertainty"? There are two kinds of uncertainty that are extremely important. The first is the one you reference in your blog title-- the uncertainty of the Uncertainty Principle, the fundamental uncertainty that comes from noncommuniting quantum operators. The second is uncertainty on physical measurements (often called "error", much to the confusion of non-science majors), and is *extremely* important in science, but also extremely poorly understood. (People want things to be black and white; you know or you don't know. If you don't know it perfectly, you don't know it at all, etc.)

This second kind of uncertainty is something I'd call general science; the first kind is Physics.


What does the book say about "uncertainty"?

Well, that was quick...
That's the glaring physics omission.

I assume it's got "evolution". I'm curious what it says about it, though.

I'd tell you, but I'm at work now, and left the book at home.

Does it include chaos theory and strange attractors? Maybe I just think it's important because it fascinates me, but it does. Fascinate me.


this website and its very interesting!! thank you for this website!!!