Metaphor of the Month! Occam’s Razor

Omuamau AsteroidAfter a holiday break, our metaphors are back. I love this one for its colorful connotation, but it also tells us something vital about how science works.

The OED Online informs us that the idea was named for 13th Century Franciscan friar, philosopher, and scientist William of Ockhamthough the concept of “cutting away of extraneous material” is far older. That idea, however, goes beyond the sort of editing of deadwood that I teach to my writing students. Occam’s Razor is about the elegance of choosing the simplest explanation, when many others are possible.

The dictionary notes an etymology only dating to the 19th Century and the single and succinct definition: “The principle that in explaining anything no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.”

Consider a recent conversation where a colleague in Physics employed Occam’s Razor. Not long ago, the mysterious object Oumuamua (also spelled ‘Oumuamua) passed through the inner solar system. Given the object’s trajectory and speed, it appeared likely to have come from another star system. Then a team of Harvard Physicists published a paper that caused a brief news sensation. Among the other possible explanations for our visitor, they note “‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”

Naturally, this got a lot of popular press. What got skipped by these journalists was the idea that the other simpler explanations for the celestial object’s odd acceleration are more likely. Until evidence for ET presents itself, scientists but apparently not journalists must employ Occam’s Razor. Personally, I would love our civilization to have a Rendezvous with Rama, to cite a novel of first contact by the late Arthur C. Clarke. More likely, however, data will reveal other ways the asteroid could behave as it does.

Less than thrilling? Yes. Good science? Also, yes. Consider that the next time you hear an implausible explanation. Take your razor to it.

As for spelling? Aldous Huxley preferred “Ockham” as late as 1960, in a usage the OED provides. I’d not encountered it in print before today. Huxley also questioned the idea, wondering if it “isn’t a valid scientific principle. Perhaps entities sometimes ought to be multiplied beyond the point of the simplest possible explanation.”  I leave that up to my colleagues in STEM to debate, but I like Occam’s Razor, to cite an earlier Metaphor of the Month, as my Rule of Thumb.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, via Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Formication

ants crawlingBe sure to not let Autocorrect “fix” this word. Yes, it sounds like “Formica” too, and that trade name of a laminate countertop has a seeming relation to our Word of the Week.

According to Writing Consultant Griffin Myers who nominated the word, it “is the medical term for the sensation like bugs crawling over the skin. This lead me to the Latin term ‘formica’ meaning ants, which I kind of already knew because of the Formics in Ender’s Game.”  Those aliens are really rather terrifying, but I’m still stuck on how a company could think that anything associated with bugs crawling could sell a consumer product, except pesticide.

The OED specifies ants as the creepy-crawlie in its definition. The word is of recent origin, dating to the 18th Century (yes, that is recent for etymology or, for that matter, entomology).

But what about the building material? According to the official Formica account, the name came when the two inventors “needed a substitute ‘for’ mica, so they swapped in the plastic resins, which led to the company name – you guessed it – Formica.” The company site is worth your time, to see those fantastic countertops from the 1950s that still appear in retro diners across the nation. With talent like Raymond Loewy working with the firm, one sees how the trade name became synonymous for any laminate counter.

But ants on the counter? Reach for a damp paper towel and clean up.

Update 1/28/18: Dr. Kristine Nolin, Associate Professor of Chemistry at UR, reminded me that “Ants produce formic acid, which is delivered when the ant bites.” You can learn more from this site. Thanks to Dr. Nolin and the surprisingly large number of readers who saw this post! Send us new words and metaphors!

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Creative-Commons image, “Ants Crawling,” courtesy of Ky at Flickr.

Consultant News: Tech Writing at Jefferson Lab

By Julia Siewert, Writing Consultant

Editor’s Note: From time to time we run “dispatches from the field” by current or former Consultants. Here Julia shows us the utility of what we do even in the most technical of settings.

Last summer I worked as a technical writing intern at Jefferson Lab. This job involved working with subject matter experts to edit, create, and format highly technical cryogenic resource and operations manuals. These were operations modeled after JLab’s CHL2 (Central Helium Liquefier), and were being modified (and, in some cases, created from scratch) for use at SLAC for their upcoming LCLS-II project.

I learned a LOT more than I thought I would as a writer, and went by the motto “if I can understand it, so can the engineer” while I was editing. I also got to work a bit with basic graphics and got to make keys for the process and instrumentation designs for LCLS-II. Both of these combined made a comprehensive guide to the machinery and operations of the cryogenics for this awesome project at temperatures around 2-4 Kelvin (which is about -271 to -269 degrees Celsius).

This was an awesome experience, and I’m proud to say I successfully created around 9-10 complete procedural documents that will be implemented in the commissioning process. I especially enjoyed combining my love for writing with my science background and working with some of the nation’s brightest in engineering and physics.

Image (The two sections of linear accelerator in the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility at Jefferson Lab) courtesy of Jefferson Lab at Flickr.

Word of the Week! Atavism

Here is a term that has been on my mind a lot, ever since some kids walking down the street, twenty years ago, spotted me and my manually powered reel mower.

“Look at that dude! He’s got one of them throwback lawnmowers!”

That’s a good working definition of an atavism. The etymology given by the OED, as you might guess, is the Latin atavus, either “a great-grandfather’s grandfather” or more generally, “an ancestor.”

For once, the OED’s entry appears really limited, providing no usage examples. It notes resemblance to an ancestor rather than to one’s parents, or the recurrence of a disease common in distant family history, but not in one’s recent ancestors. My favorite print dictionaries, old and new, provide little more.  So I will strike out into the atavistic thickets by myself.

I’ve seen our word, as noun and adjective, used both in science and elsewhere, to mean a “throwback,” something from an earlier time that has somehow erupted into the present. I write “erupted” because my sense of the term is not an historical or biological survival from an earlier epoch but something that emerges, like new. It calls the mind and eye back to an earlier time. Hence  Frank Norris’ description of the titular character in one of my favorite novels, McTeague: “His head was square-cut, angular; the jaw salient, like that of the carnivora.” Norris’ protagonist is a brute, a throwback to some imagined caveman past.

Consider nonhuman examples: I do not mean a perfectly restored 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang but one sold as new, presumably a zero-mile example found improbably on the premises of a Ford factory. Better still, imagine the faces of shocked workers when such a car appeared magically on the assembly line. That dream of car collectors would be in keeping with the biological idea of atavism.

My favorite pop-culture atavism appears at the top of this post.

I have been waiting a long time to use the Mountain Dew “Throwback” logo for something. I drank the stuff in high school. Somehow I lost the taste, but my fondness for Hillbilly kitsch has remained strong.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Suborbital

As the summer moves along, I review old syllabi and create new ones. I’ve not taught my course “The Space Race” for a few years, but I did review the course materials and the word “suborbital” popped up. It’s a newcomer, with The OED only dating it to 1950.

That term describes not the free-fall of something orbiting the earth, but a specific altitude where one experiences a short period of weightlessness. Humans have been there, and beyond, since the early 1960s, with Alan Shepherd being the first American to do so. For those with enough money, however, there are now other options.

Suborbital flights will likely be in the news soon, as Sir Richard Branson’s latest craft, VSS Unity, has completed test flights and may, within a few months, take paying passengers to the edge of space.

When I explained suborbital fight to my students, I used the old cliche “what goes up MUST come down.” You can see it in the following image of the first two Project Mercury flights.Note the vertex (highest point) of the parabola and the brief duration of the journey. NASA’s little Redstone rocket, a borrowed Army missile based in Werher von Braun’s V-2, did not have the power to lift a capsule and astronaut into a true orbit, where an object is under the influence of gravity without any drag acting upon it. It falls forever but unlike a skydiver, the object in orbit has its decent checked by its forward momentum around the Earth. That perfect balance can last for a few hours or even years, if the spacecraft occasionally boosts its orbit, but for those like Alan Shepard or Sir Richard’s spacefarers, the craft do not attain free fall. They skim into the edges of space, then begin to descend. For a few moments, as they fall, travelers experience zero gravity (and Virgin Galactic customers find their wallets about a quarter million dollars lighter).

Perhaps in the era of cheaper access to space, costs will drop as they once did for airline travel. For now, experiencing suborbital flight seems a luxury for the rich, but so did transcontinental air travel during my parents’ lifetime.

Now we complain about legroom and the food and do not even look out the windows.

Addendum 6/25/18: Dr. Peter Smallwood, UR Department of Biology, reminds me that “For me, suborbital is a vein, bone, or a fracture in the bone just below the eye.”  That is the OED’s first definition, but to space-junkies like me, anything about human spaceflight drowns out the rest.

Virgin Galactic and suborbital fight images courtesy of Wikipedia.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! A Priori

Yes, I know it is two words, but you will hardly ever encounter this phrase or its counterpart a posteriori outside academia. Inside it, the Latin term speaks volumes and appears often enough to merit recognition in the blog. The phrase occurs as adjective and adverb. I often run into it, casually, as a noun. That usage does not appear in my references (but I like it anyway).

I first puzzled over a priori concepts (and had more than a few of them toppled)in the early 1980s, when I was an undergrad at The University of Virginia.  As I came to understand it then, the term meant “principles we assume to be true with out any further questioning,” an idea that I came to see as fundamentally at odds with academic inquiry. A priori ideas were, in my graduate program at Indiana heavy with postmodern literary theory, lampooned.

I suppose this a priori statement would get the founder of UVA, Thomas Jefferson, in trouble were he to write in an essay for some of my grad-school classes:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That Declaration gave us one of the most famous a priori statements in recorded history and began a revolution that one hopes has not ended. But wait. It appears that I need more schooling before I make any claims a priori.  I assumed something, and as a student once said in class, ” ‘assume’ makes an ass of ‘u’ and me.”

When I open the pages of The American Heritage Dictionary, my sense of our phrase comes third. Instead, the reference book gives “proceeding from a known or assumed cause” pride of place. The OED Online puts my sense of a priori second, as “in accordance with one’s previous knowledge or prepossessions.”  The dictionary also provides a clear 1862 example, “Reason commands us, in matters of experience, to be guided by observational evidence, and not by à priori principles.”

We have lost the accent over the “a,” but I lost more in my reasoning without further investigation.  Both reference works imply that a priori ideas do not provide the final word for anything. They are, instead, merely presuppositions for making future claims. That works well with fundamental principles of academic reasoning. H.W Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage links a priori reasoning to deduction. Mr. Holmes would be proud of us.

A priori reasoning works well outside revolutionary manifestos, the Humanities, or detective work; it is, in fact, essential in the natural sciences. In physics, bodies near the Earth fall at 32 feet per second per second. It was not until Galileo’s era that we came to understand how gravity is related to the mass of a planet and would not be the same on other heavenly bodies. Empirical evidence followed.  That new scientific principle became, then, a new a priori concept for those working in the field.

With the end of the semester nigh, consider the a priori concepts you have had challenged or overturned in your life’s journey. More will follow, a posteriori when learning new ideas. I leave that up to the reader to learn, along with the meanings of a posteriori.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here. If  you want to read more about whether Sherlock Holmes employs deductive or inductive reasoning, have a peek here.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Valence

Special thanks to Rita Willett, MD, Healthcare Studies and Department of Biology, for our word this week. This is her second nomination and, as a writer, I can say that nothing is more pleasing than “regulars” who read one’s work.

Dr. Willett provides a term that I knew though chemistry classes, indicating particular types of chemical bonds. It appears in many other fields, all of them indicating a bond of some sort. Scouting about with Google, I found a use from linguistics, where valence indicates the number of words in a sentence to which another word, especially a verb, can bond. An verb such as “give” has a valence of three; it makes no sense alone, requiring itself (valence of 1) as well as a direct (2) and indirect object (3), as in “give me the dictionary!”

Dr. Willett and her students encountered our word through NIH’s RDoC Matrix, a graph ranking psychological motivations and threats according to positive or negative “valences.”

At first glance, the word’s meaning in psychology drifts a bit from its use in chemistry or immunology, where it also indicates a binding action for antibodies or antigens. The use of the term in psychology dates back only a century, with the OED Online providing a 1917 example, but one from 1935, in a book called A Dynamic Theory of Personality, really captures the meaning well: “A certain object or experienced as an attraction (or repulsion)… We shall say of such objects that they possess a ‘valence’.”

There, then, in our bond, much like that in other fields. One positive valence I found at the NIH site is, in fact, chemical. Consider the reward given by the brain when it releases dopamine. Get a “like” online (or a regular reader responding at your blog) and you get a little dose of it, naturally.

This is why I often critique smart phones, calling them addictive “dopamine dispensers” and banning their use in class. But I digress, perhaps to release some other pleasant brain chemical related to smugness or curmudgeon-ism.

Looking for images in the Creative Commons of “dopamine reward” led to all sorts of negative valences that had me fretting about wasting professional time, since so many images were simply the same drawing of a human brain with the areas highlighted that are linked to dopamine. On the other hand, laughter must be a positive valence, and short clips of Homer Simpson being forced to eat an infinite number of donuts in Hell came up too under “dopamine reward.” This led me to Homer having a nightmare about “The Planet of the Donuts” where he’s accused of eating half the population.

Find those on your own. Right now, my brain craves the positive valence of consuming a donut, a word I prefer to spell “doughnut.” Then the negative valence of guilt for eating two, not one. I hope the valences that influence your behavior are all positive, from getting enough sleep, rewards, and positive habits.

Correction 4/9/18: I had originally noted “valence” as the spelling for a type of window treatment. As Dr. Willett pointed out, that is a “valance.” I swear I saw it listed with an “e” in one of my dictionaries. Perhaps I need an entry for “ophthalmologist.”

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.