Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Science of Words

I wish I had a penny for every time I’ve heard a science student say “It doesn’t matter if my writing’s a bit dodgy, it’s not as if I’m doing English.” Well, maybe a pound; I’d certainly be pretty rich by now if that was the case. And somehow by saying this, they’re completely missing the point. A very crucial point, if we’re going to be successful in engaging as many people as possible with the principles and, let’s face it, the sheer wonder of the science all around us.

Scientists, perhaps more than any other discipline, need to have the best possible communication skills. Language is how we, as a species, communicate our needs, our hopes, our dreams, our ideas. And that is what science is all about: formulating an idea, investigating it and then (most importantly of all) communicating it to others. I’m not necessarily talking about perfect grammar and spelling (although some spelling mistakes can be disastrous, especially if by changing one letter you change an entire molecule), but the ability to translate often complex theory into something that everyone can appreciate.

And yet language is often perceived as a barrier by scientists and laymen alike. The student viewpoint quoted above fails to take into account that it doesn’t matter how good your theory is if no-one else can follow it. It’s often said that you can only really pass on an idea successfully if you truly understand it yourself. That’s true, but once again, without the right language, the right words, you will never be able to make yourself understood.

Those outside the field often complain that scientists speak another language, and to some extent that’s true; the rules created to allow universal scientific communication can be daunting to those not “in the club”. Some scientists deliberately use obscure terminology to keep their work exclusive, using their language as proof of just how clever they really are. But to be a great scientist, you also need to be a great communicator, speaking many different languages. I don’t mean literally, of course, but you have to have the ability to adapt the words to make them fit for purpose, for the benefit of all.

One of the things I try to do with my students is to break down the meaning of words, to show them where they’ve come from. That way, when confronted by a word they’ve never seen before, hopefully I’ve given them the tools to work it out for themselves; a sort of scholarly detective mystery, if you like. With understanding comes appreciation, too, of how and why these words are used the way they are and how objects are related to each other.

In this age of instant access information the science of words, and therefore the words of science, are more important than ever. As many people have said over the ages, from French philosophers to comic-book characters, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Words are powerful, as is science. As practitioners, educators and enthusiasts, it is our responsibility to use those words wisely both to nurture and encourage those who follow in our footsteps.

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