Relics of science past

Sometimes a name tells us about the way people used to think about something. An initial understanding or categorization may look odd or confusing in late of later findings, but a name may stick anyway because it has become so widely used. Here are a few examples from astronomy. Planetary nebulae: These were named purely for a superficial… Read More »

Brimstone, vitriol, and strong water

If you enjoy reading about history or reading old books—histories, books about science, even novels—you’ve probably encountered some of the wonderful old chemical terms that were in use before our current chemical notation was developed. Here are a few of my favorites: Aqua fortis and aqua regia: Two powerful acids, nitric acid and a mixture of nitric and… Read More »

Naming the heavens

The International Astronomical Union announced recently that public input will be considered when names are assigned to “planetary satellites, newly discovered planets, and their host stars.” These public names will be distinct from the scientific designations, which I gather will follow the rules they always have. This seems as good a time as any to look briefly into… Read More »

Wolf feet and golden leeks

Sometimes it’s fun just to see what you can figure out about something by knowing the Latin or Greek roots of its name. This is also a great way to spot connections between very different things. I was delighted, for example, to find out that the name of the rhododendron has a charming etymology. The rhodo part comes… Read More »

Oology and other ologies

When I think of the sciences, I first think of biology, physics, chemistry…the names of subjects you can take a high school class in. Here are some finer-grained specialties within those sciences. Tribology: This term was coined relatively recently to describe the science of surfaces in contact (friction, lubrication, and wear). It comes from the Greek verb meaning… Read More »

Suns, moons, galaxies … earths?

One of the things I had to decide when I started this blog was how I was going to treat the word earth. Should I use earth or Earth? Do I need to use the word the? It may seem that I’m taking the geek part of the title Science Word Geek far too seriously here, but if… Read More »

Two Scotsmen and a tree

The story of Scottish botanists Archibald Menzies, David Douglas, and the tree that bears both their names is a good example of the challenges of establishing either a binomial name or a common name for newly observed species. (Incidentally, the name Menzies is pronounced “MING-iss.”) The tree is the Douglas fir, common in the forests of western North… Read More »

Who put the meteors in meteorology?

While we’re on the subject of meteors, what have meteors got to do with meteorology? It turns out that the link between meteors and meteorology is a Greek word, meteoron, that refers to things in the air, or sky—what today we would call atmospheric phenomena. Clouds, lightning, rain, storms, wind: these are all features of the sublunary sphere… Read More »

The meteor family of words

Sometimes words that describe the natural world come in a rather confusing clump. I’m hoping to explore many of these groups of words describing interrelated or similar concepts. Because one of the best-known meteor showers, the Perseids, is peaking this weekend, let’s start with the meteor family of words. A meteor, of course, is that thin needle of… Read More »