MAGAZINE OF THE SOCIE TY FOR SCIENCE & THE PUBLIC MAGAZINE OF THE SOCIETY FOR SCIENCE & THE PUBLIC
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Nothing beats science for
building your vocabulary
One of science’s most entertaining
features is its capacity for linguistic
Just imagine what it would be like if
scientific advances had to confine them-
selves to descriptions using preexist-
ing words. “Quarks” would have been
called “little things inside atomic nuclei.”
Apart from being hard to fit in headlines in magazines, such
terms would fail to capture the imaginative nuances of new
discoveries, the leaps in knowledge that demand comparable
lexicographical innovation. New ideas and new phenomena
need new words.
Fortunately, scientists are almost always up to the task.
Two recent examples are described in this issue by physical
sciences writer Devin Powell.
One is the self-explanatory atomtronics, a word still too new
to show up in Webster’s although it appears occasionally in
Physical Review Letters. By manipulating atoms supercooled
into the weird quantum state known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, physicists have begun to create rudimentary analogs
of electronic circuits, with the atoms playing the part of the
electrons (see Page 5).
If that coinage isn’t poetic enough for you, try magnetricity.
It sounds a little like the name of a villain from the X-Men movies, but it’s actually the magnetic version of electricity, recently
demonstrated by a scientist at University College London and
his collaborators. Their latest report (Page 13), building on
work published in 2009, describes magnetic currents that last
for minutes. In this case, the role of electrons in electric current is played by “magnetic monopoles” that move around by
virtue of the shifting positions of atomic groupings in a crystalline material called spin ice. Someday, the researchers hope,
magnetricity will spawn the related neologism magnetronics.
Whether atomtronics or magnetronics will ever achieve
the linguistic notoriety — or economic impact — of electronics
might not be known for decades. For that matter, some other
new word might come along and outdo (or encompass) both
of them. For just as science always seems to spawn surprising advances, the language also takes some unforeseen turns.
After all, when J.J. Thomson discovered electrons in 1897, he
called them corpuscles. — Tom Siegfried, Editor in Chief
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