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Literature / Words of Science and the History Behind Them

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Also known more simply as Words of Science, this Non-Fiction book was first published by Isaac Asimov in 1959, with the help of Houghton Mifflin. Each word is accompanied by a short essay about the etymology of the word and how it is used in a scientific context. It starts with Absolute Zero and ends with Zero (okay, actually it ends with Zodiac and Zero is the penultimate entry). After the essays is an index of words, which includes the names of famous scientists that are mentioned in the essays, for ease of reference.


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Words of Science provides examples of:

  • Artifact Name:
    • The entry for "Atoms" explains that the word comes from the Greek "atomos", which means "not divisible", based on the idea that these particles could not be broken down into anything smaller. In 1896, this assumption was disproven.
      Now, man's whole future hinges upon the manner in which atoms break up and fuse together and on the behavior of particles smaller than atoms. But still the name is atom—"indivisible".
    • The entry for "Chromatography" explains that the word comes from the Greek "chroma" for colour and "graphein" for writing. It is a method of separating compounds with powders or paper, but is now performed for mostly colourless compounds, making the name no longer indicate the reading of pigments.
    • The entry for "Colloid" explains that the word comes from the Greek for "glue". It was originally a contrast to crystalline compounds, but the substances have been proven to crystallize, making its intended meaning of "not crystals" inaccurate.
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  • Billed Above the Title: Every edition puts Dr Asimov's name at the top of the cover, usually with the title just underneath it and at roughly the same font size.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: The entry for "Calorie" explains that calorie is short for the calorie-gram (the amount of heat needed to "raise one gram of water from 14.5°C to 15.5°C"). Calorie, on the other hand, is on nutrition facts and is short for the kilocalorie, a thousand times larger. Because we can't hear the difference in Real Life, this causes confusion.
  • Comet of Doom: The entry for "Comet" explains the fear from ancient people that comets heralded disaster, and not until the 16th century were they able to be studied in enough detail to determine that they were further away than the moon. The first comet to have its orbit calculated is now called Halley's Comet, after the astronomer Edmund Halley who (in 1704) predicted its return around the year 1758 (the approximation is important as it returned in 1759).
  • Dedication: This book is dedicated to his (first) wife and (only) daughter.
    To the women in my life
    GERTRUDE and ROBYN
  • Department of Redundancy Department: In the entry for "Anthracite" it is explained that the word itself derives from the Greek word "Anthrax", which means coal. There is a type of coal which is used in home heating and is therefore called anthracite coal.
  • Ice Crystals: In the entry for "Crystal", Dr Asimov explains how the ancient Greeks believed that the symmetry of rocks indicated that they were a type of ice; "kyros". Thus, all minerals that are transparent or symmetrical were called krystallos, which evolved to the modern English word crystal. Any sort of crystalline structure retains this etymology to frozen water, even when the structure isn't actually ice.
  • IN SPACE!: The entry for "Echinodermata" explains a medieval theory that aquatic life was a mirror to terrestrial life. Thus, many living things from the oceans are named "sea _____", as in "____, but from the sea". A list that includes sea lions, sea hogs, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins.
  • Meaningful Name: This is a book about the etymology of words; why they have their meaning.
  • Neologism: In the entry for "Rh Negative", Dr Asimov explains that the name for the rhesus monkey was entirely invented by the French Naturalist John Baptiste Audebert. From this name comes the Rh factor in human blood types.
  • Non-Indicative Name:
    • The entry for "Atoms" explains that the word comes from the Greek "atomos", which means "not divisible", based on the idea that these particles could not be broken down into anything smaller. In 1896, this assumption was disproven.
      Now, man's whole future hinges upon the manner in which atoms break up and fuse together and on the behavior of particles smaller than atoms. But still the name is atom—"indivisible".
    • The entry for "Chromatography" explains that the word comes from the Greek "chroma" for colour and "graphein" for writing. It is a method of separating compounds with powders or paper, but is now performed for mostly colourless compounds, making the name no longer indicate the reading of pigments.
    • The entry for "Colloid" explains that the word comes from the Greek for "glue". It was originally a contrast to crystalline compounds, but the substances have been proven to crystallize, making its intended meaning of "not crystals" inaccurate.
  • Overly Long Name: In the entry for "Cortisone", Dr Asimov explains that one of the compounds isolated from the adrenal glands would, by normal naming conventions, be called 11-dehydro-17-hydroxycorticosterone, but the chemists analyzing the substance figured it would be easier to say cortisone instead.
  • Philosopher's Stone: The entry for "Catalysis" describes the search for a substance to turn "base" metals into gold. This substance is then compared to platinum turning a jet of hydrogen into fire without being consumed, as well as other examples where acids and enzymes are created.
  • Portmanteau: Many of the words in this book come from putting two or more words together. In the "Neoprene" entry, it describes the various words for isoprene compounds. The word "chloroprene", especially, is a compound of chlorine and isoprene. In the entry for "Niacin", Dr Asimov explains that the word comes from combining nicotinic (ni), acid (ac), and vitamin (in).
  • Science Marches On: Some words changed over time as part of a deliberate effort by scientists to ensure accuracy as they investigated deeper and understood chemical makeup better. Cholesterol, for example, started with the name cholesterine, from "chole" meaning gall, "stear" meaning a type of hard fat, and "-ine" meaning an organic compound. However, once it was determined that the cholesterine molecules did not contain nitrogen, but did contain a hydroxyl, it was renamed cholesterol (around 1900). Derivatives were initially named sterols, but since they lacked the hydroxyl group, they were renamed steroids.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The entry for "Almanac" mentions The Old Farmers Almanac as an example of one of the best-known encyclopedias of weather predictions.
    • The entry for "Amalgam" mentions The Iliad as an example of the Bronze Age, because all the armour was made of bronze.
    • The entry for "Ammonia" explains how words like ammonia and amino acid are derived from Egyptian Mythology, based on the god Amen/Amun, patron of Thebes.
    • The entry for "Humor" references the Ben Johnson play, Every Man In His Humor, as an example of Elizabethan plays where one personality trait was exaggerated, creating the association between humorous and funny.
    • The entry for "Hurricane" explains the connection between the various cyclone storms and mythology. Taíno Mythology gives us the evil spirit Hurakan, or hurricane. Classical Mythology gives us Typhon, who fought Zeus, by way of Arabic; the word tufan became typhoon. The word tornado, in contrast, comes from the older Spanish word "tronada", meaning thunderstorm.
    • The entry for "Insect" explains that the pupa stage of development is also called a nymph, from Classical Mythology.
    • The entry for "Mammal" explains that the spiny anteater is also called the echidna, after the Greek monster.
    • The entry for "Nicotine" explains that the word morphine comes from the Roman god of sleep, Morpheus.
    • The entry for "Phobos" describes how Jonathan Swift's fictional book, Gulliver's Travels, postulated that Mars would have two moons before they had been seen in 1877.
    • The entry for "Phobos" explains that the moons of Mars comes from Greek Mythology; Ares had two sons, named Phobos and Deimos.
    • The entry for "Phospherous" explains that the Greeks figured out that the "morning star" and "evening star" were actually the same planet, so they named it Aphrodite from Greek Mythology. The Roman name for the same goddess is Venus.
    • The entry for "Psychology" begins by describing the relationship between Psyche and Eros, characters from Classical Mythology.
    • The entry for "Pterodactyl" mentions Fantasia by name, for the dinosaurs during The Rite of Spring.
    • The entry for "Tantalum" explains that the atomic element 73 is named after King Tantalus of Lydia, from Classical Mythology.
    • The entry for "Thyroid" mentions The Iliad, albeit in the context of the historical period instead of as a fictional work.
    • The entry for "Umbra" explains the use of Umbrial as a name for a sad and gloomy spirit contrasting with William Shakespeare's Ariel from The Tempest. Umbrial first appeared in Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock", and both Umbriel and Ariel are names given to Uranus's moons.
    • The entry for "Uranium" explains how the planet Uranus got its name from Classical Mythology, the god Ouranos, and how the element Uranium derives its name from that of the planet. Zeus/Jupiter, Cronos/Saturn, Neptune, and Pluto are also mentioned and elements are named after those planets as well.
    • The entries for "Volcano" and "Vulcanize" both mention the god Vulcan from Classical Mythology, and the former also mentions Hephaestus and The Iliad because Hephaestus is assumed to use Mt Etna as a forge.
  • Tagline: "A famous author makes the language of science accessible to all" — Mentor's cover from 1969

Alternative Title(s): Words Of Science

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