How English became the language of physics

During Michael Gordin’s childhood, his mother—who grew up speaking French and Moroccan Arabic—mostly conversed with his father in his father’s native Hebrew. But both of Gordin’s parents spoke to Gordin and his brothers in English, even though Gordin’s father was less nimble in the language.

“It wasn’t until much later that I came to realize what a sacrifice that was for them, to not feel quite at ease when speaking to their kids,” Gordin says, “because they wanted their kids to have the opportunities that came with speaking a language” that more people spoke. 

As Gordin got older, he became more and more interested in languages: specifically, in how people choose which languages to use, and how sometimes a more widespread language is favored over a less common one for the sake of greater opportunity and access.

Gordin is now a professor at Princeton University who specializes in the history of the modern physical sciences, particularly in Russia and the Soviet Union. In 2010, he began to write a book about how, in the mid-20th century, Russian became one of the significant languages of science. But he quickly ran into a problem.

“You can’t just write about one language; it’s an ecology, where all the languages of science are interacting,” he says. “So I decided to just devote myself entirely to exploring the issue of the friction that happens when people have to use a different language” that is not their native tongue.

In 2015, he published Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English, an account of how languages have waxed and waned in popularity among the scientific community since the Renaissance—and how English became the dominant language of science. 

Read more: symmetry

Language matters in science and mathematics – here’s why

What do you get when you cross a mafia mobster with a sociologist?

An offer you can’t understand.

It’s an old joke, and you could substitute “sociologist” with just about any other “ologist” – the broader point being that professions use language in ways that make it hard for outsiders to understand.

So, do sociologists, mathematicians, scientists and lawyers use language to be elitist and exclusive? Or is the language necessary to describe the specifics of their field?

And what role does school play in initiating students into the language of these different disciplines?

Read more: The Conversation

Scientific language is becoming more informal

We are not supposed to use first-person pronouns, and contractions aren’t allowed. These rules also discourage unattended anaphoric pronouns and say that split infinitives should be rarely used. And to start a sentence with an initial conjunction is as bad as to include a listing expression, and so on. Exclamation marks are forbidden!

The rules of academic writing are many, but they have one intention: to avoid informal language, in all its forms. Blogs and social media may encourage authors to write it as they say it, but much of what passes for scholarly and scientific prose is simply not designed for human ears. Academic writing is code, with freedom of expression and emotional range curtailed in favour of explicit meaning and a necessary lack of ambiguity. If nothing else, it (by which we mean academic writing, for those still on the watch for unattended pronouns) is writing that knows its audience and gives them what it (the audience) expects.

But, to use a direct question, another stylistic tool on the banned list, is this academic supply and demand still in place? Do the academics of the Internet age still communicate as stiffly as their colleagues did at the time of the Apollo programme? Or, heaven forbid, has some scruffy informality crept into scholarly discourse?

Read more: Nature

How do new elements get named?

It is highly unusual for words to become the subject of avid discussion—and even of consideration by lexicographers—before they have even been coined! This is the curious situation at present in the world of science, where the announcement of four new chemical elements has created something of a stir. They can now take a permanent place in the Periodic Table of Elements, and for that they will need officially approved names. These names will have the rare distinction of being eligible for the Dictionary’s candidate list as soon as they are published. But how are their names chosen, and who makes the decision?

Read more: Oxford Dictionaries