One of the first pieces of advice new science writers receive is to avoid jargon. It confuses people unnecessarily and limits your audience. Ed Yong explains the prohibition very well. So we learn to turn riparian into riverside, morbidity into illness and Hubble constant into the rate the universe expands.
But there are some words or phrases of scientific jargon that are so weird, so pretty, or so oddly resonant, that it almost seems a shame to translate them into plain English. They seem to deserve wider exposure, if not in our stories than maybe as line of poetry or a band name. I have Googled and Googled, but I am shocked to discover that Angular Unconformity is not in use as a punk band name. Avogadro’s Number, on the other hand, is a bar and music venue in Fort Collins, Colorado. And Nodes of Ranvier was the name of a now-defunct Christian metalcore band from Sioux Falls. Wow.
It is very much okay to take pleasure in interesting and poetic jargon as we write. And there’s a time and a place for sharing that pleasure with the reader. Here is some specialized lingo that I’ve enjoyed recently:
- natural enemy, ecology-speak for the species in the food web that predates or parasitizes another…but also an awesome video game name.
- stellar wind, like solar wind, but for other stars. What could be more poetic than the wind of stars?
- disappearance bearing, the compass direction an organism being tracked was heading when it disappeared from view. Melancholy novel title anyone?
- scintillation counter, a device that measures gamma radiation. Also, in my own mind, a device that measures how scintillating a conversation is and emits warning beeps when things get too dull and the topic needs to be forcefully changed.
- Coccolithophore, obovoid, thromium, otolith, sublimation, atavism and ambulocetus. These words, which I leave you to look up, are just beautiful.
I’m not the only writer who digs the resonance of some jargon phrases. Ground truth, the field measurement used to check map-based models, shows up in metaphoric mode in several places. It is the name of a blog on the Global Post and of a journalist and democracy-activist led group that teaches people who live in slums not recorded on maps how to map their neighborhoods.
And science-writing demigod John McPhee is famously fond of the poetic possibilities of nerd argot. He’s even used jargon as titles of his books, as in The Curve of Binding Energy (the energy required to knock apart an atom, as a function of its number of nucleons) and Basin and Range (a geologic term for the topography of most of the Western North America—alternating mountain ranges and flat basins).
So what jargon word or phrase have you used in your writing for its beauty, its strangeness or its metaphoric possibilities? And what jargon have you kept for yourself, just to turn over and over in your mind like a polished stone in your hands?
Image Credit: Carl Buell