Blog

How Scientific Language Is Created

December 21, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week, I posted a blog about Bohr’s use of language. Specifically, I wanted to investigate how the field of science will find ways to accurately describe indescribable events. I discussed the way that modal verbs (helping verbs which express doubt or uncertainty like “might” or “could”) can negatively affect the reception of a scientific article. I think Bohr embraced this idea of uncertainty. In fact, he claims that areas of uncertainty become the best areas for advancement because they point out specific questions. Rather than formulating science as if it were static he asked that we (both the scientist and the reader) investigate our use of language, our preconceived notions, and our unknowns. Bohr accepts, in fact, desires to imbue scientific language with doubt. I think he goes to great lengths when discussing language in order to enlighten future generations of scientists and readers as to the complexities involved in atomic sciences. That science can be grounded upon facts but still involve many, many questions is part of the reality of science. Therefore, language must reflect this reality. Really, we do not have all the answers and should not proceed as if we do. The problem is, however, that journal articles which include doubtful language are often regarded as less rigorous, less accurate, and less scientific. Bohr, however, would applaud these articles as attempts to base the unknowns upon the knowns. Moving forward, moving into an era of atomic theory, then, will demand a higher sense of intelligence from both readers and scientists.

In today’s blog, I want to better understand two parts of the question of scientific language. First, I am interested in the perception and reception of modal verbs in languages other than English. If modal verbs in English are perceived as unscientific, are they also perceived this way in other languages? Much of science is presented in English. In limiting our scientific language to a handful of languages, do we limit our ability to describe the indescribable? Scientists often think outside the box in order to find terms that reflect what they find. For example, names of celestial bodies refer to mythological beings. Latin terms classify plants. Clouds, too, were named in Latin according to observable features. What then, do we use to describe atomic energy: metaphor, mythology, ancient languages, compounds? If scientific articles are published in only a handful of languages, does this exclude some metaphoric understanding or phrasing from an outside culture? Does the way that we currently publish scientific findings prohibit (or at least discourage) any culture from entering the dialogue? Also, how do we adequately translate any scientific finding into another language? It is common in the scientific realm to stick to the original language when using a specific term. So, the Latin name “cirrus” is often used in the translation, rather than a word from the target language. However, using a term for an identifiable object, such as a cloud (or plant), is very common and accessible which is not true of atomic theories. In other words, it is incredibly difficult to adequately express the experience of atomic behavior in any accurate, identifiable, universal language. I just wonder if this dependence upon one particular language limits us in some unforeseeable way.

My second question today deals with Bohr’s insistence that we continue to use classical terminology even for unobservable data. I understand the importance of adherence to non-abstract language as a way to describe abstract ideas. However, language is never static, which may present problems for the idea of classical terminology. For example, atomic theory is so named only because at one time we assumed that atoms were the smallest pieces of material in existence. We now know that this is not true, so we have adjusted the definition of atomic as well as the public perception of the science. Furthermore, from Bohr’s Atomic Theory I chose to look up the term “ion” and am still uncertain about the definition’s accuracy. According to Merriam-Webster, “ion” is defined as either “1: an atom or group of atoms that carries a positive or negative electric charge as a result of having lost or gained one or more electrons; or 2: a charged subatomic particle (such as a free electron).” The terms “lost” and “gained” included in this definition make it sound as if an atom has a natural state, and that the ion is not the natural state. I struggle with this because having an electric charge may be considered just as natural as any other state. It may be important to note that the ion is less stable than another state, but that is not what the definition explicitly says. So, even if we stick with classical terminology, definitions will change over time. In fact, just in scanning the Wikipedia page for “ion,” our understanding has rapidly progressed in just under one hundred years. Furthermore, scientists such as Faraday (who first discovered ions) may have used the term differently than contemporary scientists. This is, of course, something that Bohr was intensely aware of, but perhaps the layperson will not understand the subtleties of these changes. I do understand his explanations regarding classical terminology, yet still, I am left wondering how one might be conversant in the language of science without knowing the history of an innumerable amount terms.

Clearly I am not a scientist, and I do not have the necessary skills to examine a lot of the terminology in Bohr’s Atomic Theory. However, I do spend a lot of time thinking about the effect of language on communication, society, and human life in general. I feel that it is of great importance (and benefit) to consider these larger questions as they relate to specific fields. I am grateful to Niels Bohr who used language as carefully and precisely as possible, so that even someone such as myself could attempt to understand the complexities of Atomic Theory.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Bohr's Use of Language

December 14, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.

At the end of the fourth chapter of Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature, Niels Bohr writes, “Besides, the fact that consciousness, as we know it, is inseparably connected with life ought to prepare us for finding that the very problem of the distinction between the living and the dead escapes comprehension in the ordinary sense of the word. That a physicist touches upon such questions may perhaps be excused on the ground that the new situation in physics has so forcibly reminded us of the old truth that we are both onlookers and actors in the great drama of existence.” I love the stage analogy that Bohr uses. I picture a camera forever panning backwards. When the scene begins, we are looking at a stage, but as the camera moves backward the audience is on the stage. Included in my visualization is that both the stage and ourselves become increasingly smaller. This is important to the way that I see Bohr’s argument. Bohr suggests that even if we can claim to know pieces of the whole, we will never see the complete picture at one time. This is not to say that we cannot connect pieces in the way that we do a puzzle, but that no single piece can stand as significant of the whole. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature explains that the future of science will be (and already is) beyond our senses. Instead of seeing reactions and experiments, we must rely upon a variety of tests, the accumulation of which will grant a picture of the whole. At no one time, Bohr reminds us, will we be able to actually see the whole, however. In both this piece and in “Discussion with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics,” Bohr explains how his view differs from Einstein. Unlike Bohr, Einstein believed that at some point we will have a complete picture of atomic physics.

A recent discussion of these readings sparked my curiosity about the things which validate science, such as observable data. I am also interested in the way that Bohr compares atomic theory to classical philosophy. By this, I mean that he understands that there are unknowns in atomic theory. Finally, I also want to know more about the way he emphasizes that the scientist is a part of the experiment. In Atomic Theory he writes, “The resignation as regards visualization and causality, to which we are thus forced in our description of atomic phenomena, might well be regarded as a frustration of the hopes which formed the starting-point of the atomic conceptions. Nevertheless, from the present standpoint of the atomic theory, we must consider this very renunciation as an essential advance in our understanding. Indeed, there is no question of a failure of the general fundamental principles of science within the domain where we could justly expect them to apply. The discovery of the quantum of action shows us, in fact, not only the natural limitation of classical physics, but, by throwing a new light upon the old philosophical problem of the objective existences of phenomena independently of our own observations, confronts us with a situation hitherto unknown in natural science. As we have seen, any observation necessitates an interference with the course of the phenomena, which is of such a nature that it deprives us of the foundation underlying the causal mode of description.” As with classical philosophy, we are at a crossroads. This new path is filled with unknowns, and not only that, but unobservable unknowns. Despite this complication, Bohr asks scientists to depend upon established terms which maintain a sense of cohesiveness, but also give us some concrete foundations for theoretical science. This technique hearkens back to the beginnings of philosophy as humans grappled to find language suitable for metaphysics.

The “old philosophical problem of the objective existences” outside of our own hearkens back to the roots of philosophy. In fact, as science moves forward, it must address many of the same questions that began as early as 2000 years ago. To address some of these unknowns, Bohr demands precise language without straying from classical vocabulary. Both Atomic Theory and “Discussion with Einstein” address the difficulty of language for the scientist and for the public. He explains that unknowns do not equal a lack of knowledge or a scientist’s uncertainty about the validity of their research. Rather, an unknown is in itself useful. He labels this dilemma an “intricacy of language.” Bohr writes, “[Q]uantum theory presents us with a novel situation in physical science, but attention was called to the very close analogy with the situation as regards analysis and synthesis of experience, which we meet in many other fields of human knowledge and interest. As is well known, many of the difficulties in psychology originate in the different placing of the separation lines between object and subject in the analysis of various aspects of physical experience. Actually words like ‘thoughts’ and ‘sentiments,’ equally indispensable to illustrate the variety and scope of conscious life, are used in a similar complementary way as are space-time co-ordination and dynamical conservation laws in atomic physics. A precise formulation of such analogies involves, of course, intricacies of terminology, and the writer’s position is perhaps best indicated in a passage in the article, hinting at the mutually exclusive relationship which will always exist between the practical use of any word and attempts at its strict definition.” The imprecision in language exists in all fields, and grows as the field grows. Bohr’s insistence upon utilizing classical terminology is twofold. First, He asks that we use exact, well-defined terms so as to limit misunderstandings. Second, he wishes to avoid further abstraction of an already abstract subject.

Bohr’s focus on the language debate reminded me of a recent article on modal verbs, or verbs which predict rather than describe simple facts. The article claimed that scientific papers often get buried or dismissed because they include words such as “might,” “could,” “may,” “ought,” or “will.” Of course, these verbs reflect the fact that scientists do not have all the answers, and each experiment leads to further unknowns. This dismissal is something that Bohr feared and a reason for his insistence upon classical terminology. Incorporating existing terminology with atomic physics, science remains valid and as independent of the scientist as possible. Again, I am reminded of the fact that, according to Bohr, the scientist is a part of the experiment as much as they are observers. Therefore, if the scientist were to also alter terminology in a way that best suits their vision, they would further insert themselves and their view into the experiment. Furthermore, modal verbs signify opportunity for further experiment. They also reflect Bohr’s insistence upon the fact that we cannot know the whole picture anymore. As we interact with and learn from the world, the complexities in science grow larger. However, while uncertainty can be off-putting, uncertainty in science should be celebrated.

Bohr’s focus on language makes me think that there are opportunities for educators here too. In teaching science (to both scientists and non-scientists), we should include a better understanding of the specificity of language. We can also explain the benefit of things like modal verbs. Perhaps this will better enable us navigate complicated theories and unobservable data. We could also better educate young scientists with writing skills. Integration of these fields seems inextricably tied together. Bohr speaks of the writer’s dilemma which he calls, “the mutually exclusive relationship which will always exist between the practical use of any word and attempts at its strict definition.” In some senses, the scientist is now also a writer. In other words, language is of extreme importance for the future of science and we would do well to also teach according to these principles.

To leave a comment, click on the title of the post and scroll down.