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Problems of Semantics and Visual Aids in Science

  1. Apr 17, 2013 #1
    This is my first post to this forum, and it just so happens that what is on my mind right now is how the language and images that we use to describe our world, and teach others is a bit broken.

    I am not a scientist, but I've always been interested in it, and my interest over the years has only increased. Probably as we've learned more about the universe and the world, and media has propagated the discoveries, I've become more learned. I know about just enough right now to be a danger to myself and others, but here's my contribution to science as it is relative to how we communicate it to each other.

    First, the word 'space' is a word that I think should just be thrown out the airlock. If I were to define space, it would be an area completely devoid of all energy. Space carries a connotation of emptiness and nothingness which space is absolutely not. If we continue to throw this word at our kids, with it's multitude of uses and meanings, we're doing the future a disservice.

    I take exception to the term 'gravity well'. This is just trivial semantics, but this is how the term messed me up. I considered a gravity well analogous to a regular water well, just for the sake of visualization, and compared it to the gravity 'well' of the Earth. I deduced that the pressure at the bottom of the well would be greatest, so then the pressure at the center of the Earth, or the 'bottom' of the well should also be greatest. But then I considered that the center of the Earth could not be the bottom of the Earth's gravity well because at the center of the Earth you would be 'weightless'. So then I figured then to make the analogy work, the SURFACE of the Earth had to be the bottom of the gravity well, because as you moved toward the center, gravity would decrease (actually just start acting in the other direction as you passed through more of the Earth's mass). The pressure at the bottom of a well is greatest, but for Earth to have a gravity 'well' that would suggest that there would have to be another 'source' of gravity in order for it to be like a 'well'. I still can't wrap my head around weightlessness at the center of the Earth, because you really would have negative weight, and that doesn't seem right either. Well, I played this head game with myself for about an hour and decided that either the analogy was just a bad analogy, or that the analogy was a good analogy, and we were looking at gravity backwards. Of course, it's just a bad analogy. Unless you're heavier at the center of the earth, then it's a good analogy. Yeah bad analogy.

    Next, I really hate that diagram/animation attempting to describe visually how gravity works by putting the Earth on a black trampoline with blue gridlines, and then a moon spinning around it on the concave created by the Earth, like that silly toy designed to make your kids ask you for all your change. It may seem helpful, but if you show people who don't know any better, which is most of the world, they are going to continue to think that gravity works in a 2 dimensional way. We already have the disadvantage of having lived in a 2 dimensional gravitational field, and our minds are conditioned to think about gravity in a 2 dimensional way. Gravity needs to be visualized and practiced in a 3 dimensional way, as it actually acts, rather than the way we have perceived it since the beginning.

    Also, and I'm going to catch flak for this, I think the word constant needs to be preceded by another word like 'practical', or 'scalar'. This is because I just don't think there are any true constants. It doesn't seem possible in my mind. That's probably just due to my inexperience, but I think I have a good reason to believe nothing's truly constant.

    I also predict that real soon, we won't even have a use for the word 'gravity'.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 18, 2013 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    Welcome to PF;
    Your post concerns the use of language. It would be nice, in some ways, if everyone used words exactly the same way and there was a specific word for every situation. For instance, the scope for misunderstandings would be reduced quite a lot. However, this is not the case, cannot be the case, and is usually undesirable anyway. For instance - if this were the case, then simple activities would require a huge vocabulary to describe. Instead we rely on general feelings for how words can be used and context to provide specific meanings. Where it is important, a word may gain a strict technical meaning for a specific context... it becomes part of the jargon of the field.

    The language of science, like regular language, has withstood the test of time. There are specific meaning to specific words that apply in different contexts. It's a jargon. A student in a field quickly learns what they mean. Without standardized words for concepts, we cannot talk to each other.

    It is also a living language - it contains historical hold-overs and new words enter the lexicon all the time. The kinds of words you are discussing here, though, are pretty standard and have been for a very long time ... the ideas they embody may have changed but the usefulness of the words remains.

    You appear to be misunderstanding a core concept here -
    It does not matter how you personally would use a word - fact is that this is not the technical use.

    For instance: the word "constant" only needs a qualifier in general use - in specific discussions the context gives it a particular meaning ... just like any use of any word. In physics a constant is usually a physical constant ... a property that remains unchanged in a process or in the lifetime of the experiment being performed. This is understood by the people using the word. Since the field being discussed is physics, we don't have to put "physical" in front of every word that may have a different use outside of physics.

    What is possible or not to your mind is not the point - it is what is possible in the Universe that counts. The point in science is to let the Universe tell us what is going on.

    Some of the words we use to describe things may seem clumsy or caught up in some historical accident... that is not to say they are not useful. IF you have trouble with the words you have mentioned, then how will you cope with such odd names as charm, and strangeness?
  4. Apr 19, 2013 #3
    But in the case of the word 'space' a student in elementary school immediately learns what it doesn't mean. Sure a college student who tries really hard can take the word 'space' and know enough to know that space actually isn't empty. A little kid grows up thinking it's empty until he decides to dig deeper and find that space is anything but empty. Unfortunately for the kid, thinking that space is 'empty' for all those years will screw him conceptually until he uncovers the truth for himself, the necessity for which could have all but been eliminated were a proper term, conveying the proper connotation employed in the first place.

    I agree constants are useful, but I think we need to be careful with the literal use of it, at least when teaching. Things that appear to be constant from our perception of scale and position, but when those constants bump into the boundaries of scale, such as the atomic to sub-atomic transition, the numbers we practically consider constant become so large that we can see that they are indeed not constant. The speed of a sound wave is not constant, so the speed of a light wave is not constant, it is relative. We can't or don't want to believe that, but one number to describe the 'maximum' speed of light is, I believe misleading even the initiated.

    Charm and strangeness are words that are inherently ambiguous because they are used to describe things from a completely subjective point of view, and are also misleading because they carry no real information content about the subject. Someone can be charming only because they want to steal your stuff, but there's a different word for that reality. Some say I'm strange, but they can't exactly say why, and they can't really tell you what 'strange' is anyway. The truth is, they have no idea.

    Anyway, take a word like gravity. Soon, gravity will be replaced by a more accurate term, just as gravity replaced the word 'aether' to describe the same thing. Neither word actually describes what is happening. Honestly, at least aether attempted to describe something, which was incorrect, but at least it tried.

    Language is one of the very few things that we humans have control over. We can choose to use words that have truly objective meaning, describing reality, or we can continue to use words that are misleading to the better understanding of reality. For example, you could replace the words 'dark matter' with the words 'I don't know', and that would be more representative of reality.
  5. Apr 19, 2013 #4
    In defense of the word space, I think space as a term would be just fine if it were qualified with other terms, possibly 'subspace', which could be used to describe what is actually 'in' space, or what space is made of, and 'superspace', presumably what our universe is expanding into. When we are actually able to peer through the atomic, into the sub-atomic, where actions of subspace take place, then we'll have a qualifier for the term space. I'm more of a Star Wars kind of guy, because I like stories, but the Trek term subspace seems technically accurate.
  6. Apr 20, 2013 #5

    Simon Bridge

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    When you first start out in your journey through life, your early lessons will always tell you things you later find out are not strictly true. That's normal growing up - and it is unavoidable. A kid in elementary school does not have the math or science to understand the concepts as they are later used. What they learn in elementary school is quite adequate for what they need while leaving room to learn new stuff. By the time they are adult, they are supposed to grok that. The supposition does not always work - some people do need to be told and the failure to do that is a common one in formal education.

    The "definitions" of terms are descriptive, not prescriptive.
    You have just misunderstood what they are for.
    It has to be that way if science is to progress.

    off post #4 ... the qualifier is there in the context.
    Recognizing the context can be a bit of a skill ... I think the takeaway lesson here is that we have ot be careful about our assumptions when talking to people outside our familiar field: their use of words may be different. But physics students usually learn this in secondary school when they learn about force and work - which have different usage in physics to what most people are used to. i.e. if someone spends all day trying to push a wall over and failing, they'd feel quite OK in saying they did a lot of work on the wall. They have the aching muscles to prove it. But in physics, though they have done work, it wasn't on the wall - because the wall has not moved.

    Nobody has a problem with jargon - or, those that do, have it only for a short time.
  7. Apr 20, 2013 #6
    250 years ago, most people on the planet didn't know how to read. Sadly, there are quite a few who still can't, but there are so many who can. Our knowledge is increasing at a greater rate, building upon what is known. Compare what we knew of our world five years ago to twenty. Consider where we could be twenty from now. I envision a future in which our five year olds know more about their world than some of our teenagers today. If we make it.

    Non-astrophysicists outnumber astrophysicists on this planet a million to one. And they struggle to find work because the job market is so flooded. This reflects accurately how much the world cares about astrophysics, in my estimation. But we're getting smarter by the minute. We could be able to figure out our problems much quicker than we can even believe right now.
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2013
  8. Apr 20, 2013 #7
    There's no point in creating new words for things in order to help educate a lay person. If you want your new word to be precise, then you'll need to define it in such a way that it would be pretty meaningless to somebody who doesn't have background knowledge of the subject. In which case you would have to fall back on the bad analogies and ambiguous terms you're arguing against. .
  9. Apr 20, 2013 #8
    Create new words? That's just silly. Would there be a point in using better words that already exist in order to help educate a person, never mind the lay? Tomorrows layperson is todays postgrad. Don't be surprised when you're 80 and 7th graders have a deep understanding of how the tides work. Deeper than anyone does now. You can help propel it, or you can do otherwise. So you agree that gravity well is a bad analogy and that the term 'space' is ambiguous? Smells like progress!
  10. Apr 20, 2013 #9
    No. And please, spare me the hysterics and don't try to paint me as anti-education. Before I say anything else, I'd like to see your alternatives and your qualifications on criticising teaching methods used by professionals who a) know the rigorous theory and b) do this for a living. Given that you don't seem to understand that weight is a force (this is high school stuff), and thus can be negative depending on which direction you define to be positive, I'm sure you'll understand if I'm skeptical about any suggestions you may make on how to teach general relativity.
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2013
  11. Apr 20, 2013 #10
    I apologize if that seemed a bit snarky, I can see that. I don't mean to criticize, my personal aim is to try to propagate science, and to learn about it as much as I am able. I admit my qualifications are unquantifiable as they are homegrown, save for AP Physics in high school, but they are fundamentally sound and thorough through classical physics. What excites me most are the concepts, truthfully. I am happy to discuss my ideas for alternatives, so long as the natives are not hostile. My particular experience is in warfare, which doesn't seem related to science, and it isn't. But what I became particularly adept at was training and leading and following through. I would love to find some way to translate that experience into this new passion I've found in science.
  12. Apr 20, 2013 #11

    jim hardy

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    People may tire of me referring to this old essay, but it does speak to just what you describe.

    The old-timers grappled with this same question.
    Lavoisier expressed it eloquently in his Preface to his "Treatise on Chemistry"
    You'll find it here:

    English is a pretty good language because it is a blend of several older ones hence has a LOT of words and is capable of quite fine distinctions. The best thing that ever happened to me was a year of Latin in Junior High School - it taught me to look up the roots of words to find precisely what an author is trying to convey.
    Usually I find the obtuseness is on my end.....

    Pay particular attention to the last four paragraphs. I would really like to find some essays by that "Abbe d Condilllac" - he sounds interesting.

    I hope you find Lavoisier's essay as thought provoking as I did.
    It's a shame his career was cut short at the guillotine.

    old jim
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