Hello, friends! Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at those weird words scientists use. Today’s Sciency Word is:
Recently, just for fun, I was watching an old interview with Carl Sagan (the same interview I cited in Wednesday’s post, by the way). Around 25 minutes into that interview, Sagan talks a little about Jupiter, and he mentions that Jupiter’s distinctive coloration is caused by something called “chromophores.”
Sagan then goes on to say, flippantly, that we call it a chromophore because “we don’t know what it is.” But the word chromophore is not quite a meaningless placeholder term for a thing we don’t understand (like dark matter).
Definition: A chromophore is a group of atoms within a larger molecule that are responsible for giving that molecule its color. So, for example, chlorophyll molecules have chromophores in them that soak up red and blue light, thus giving chlorophyll its characteristically green appearance.
Etymology: Chromophore comes from two Greek words meaning “color” and “bearing.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded usage of the word is in this 1879 dictionary of chemistry. The word appears in a section about the chemical reactions used to make dyes.
To say that Jupiter’s coloration is caused by chromophores is absolutely correct, but somewhat unhelpful. It’s like asking “what caused that sound?” and being told “vibrations of the air.” But, at least for now, it seems we don’t have a better answer. To the best of my knowledge, we still don’t know which chemicals, specifically, are responsible for giving Jupiter his distinctive coloring (though Jupiter researchers have a lot of plausible-sounding guesses).
But whatever those chemicals are, they must contain chromophores. Almost by definition, that must be true.
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