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Dirty Words of Science

This experiment is a result of quite a few e-mails that I have received over the years that I have been writing the Experiment of the Week. I hope that it will show some of the communication problems that can occur when scientists and "normal people" talk to each other.

Very few weeks go by where I do not get at least one e-mail correcting me on something that I have said in an experiment. Sometimes they are true goofs. I am just as capable of making a mistake as anyone else, but often they are the result of a difference in language. I don't mean a difference between English and Spanish or Japanese. Instead, I mean the difference between the "every day" meaning of words and the scientific meaning. Over the years, I have composed quite a list of "dirty words" that offend many scientists. To understand that, you will need:

  • a glass of something you like to drink
  • a drinking straw

Lets start with a really bad one. Suction! Oh, wash your mouth out with soap! With many scientists, if you talk about suction cups sticking to a window or how a new vacuum cleaner sucks up the dirt, you will be in for quite a few minutes of angry lecture. Why? Because the word is misleading if you want to know what is really happening.

Put the straw into the glass and take a sip. OK, now what happened? You sucked the air out of the straw, which pulled the liquid up the straw, right? Wrong. You expanded your lungs. This allowed the air in your lungs to spread out, which meant that the air pressure in your lungs, your mouth and the straw was lowered. The air pressure outside is now greater than the pressure inside the straw. The higher outside pressure pushes the liquid up the straw. It is not pulled up by "suction."

OK, so what is the difference? Either way, you get a drink. The difference is that scientists are very concerned with knowing exactly how things work. They tend to get very unhappy with words that mislead people into reaching wrong conclusions. While a misconception about suction does not have a large impact on how you drink through a straw, in other situations, the difference can be critical. In some situations, a proper understanding of how things work can mean the difference between life and death.

Even scientists slip up now and then, using "everyday" language instead of scientific language. When that happens, we usually get a stack of emails, pointing out the error.