Sciency Words: Linguistic Relativity

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at interesting scientific terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  Today’s Sciency Word is:

LINGUISTIC RELATIVITY

Okay, I know you’ve seen every single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, just like I have, so I’m sure you remember the one about Riva.  He was the deaf and mute ambassador who communicated with the help of three telepathic interpreters.

In that episode, we’re told that Riva has quite a reputation for his peacemaking skills.  He’s such a famous peacemaker that, at one point, Lieutenant Worf has this to say about him:

Linguistic relativity (a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) is the idea that the language you speak shapes your thoughts.  Language molds your mind and influences your perception of the world in subtle yet profound ways.

For example, if you’re a Klingon and your language has no word for “peacemaker,” how would you ever talk to your fellow Klingons about making peace?  Could you even conceptualize, in your own mind, what peacemaking would be?  It would be difficult for some, and nearly impossible for others.  Thus we can see how the limitations of a language can limit the thinking both of individuals and of an entire society.

American anthropologist Edward Sapir was not the first person to suggest that language molds our minds in this way, but he was the first to try putting some science behind the idea with this 1929 paper on the Hopi (a Native American tribe) and their language.  Then in 1940, Benjamin Whorf published this paper expanding on Sapir’s work with the Hopi and building on Sapir’s thoughts about language.  Sapir and Whorf never actually worked together, nor did they articulate their ideas as a formal hypothesis; even so, this concept is now commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

But linguistic relativity is, in my opinion, a far more apt term.  It’s obvious, if you read Whorf’s 1940 paper, that he’s borrowing concepts and terminology directly from Einstein and the theory of general relativity.  Just as you must account for your physical frame of reference when observing space-time events, you must also consider your linguistic frame of reference when examining psychological or sociological realities.

Over the years, I’ve seen and heard some pretty extreme claims related to linguistic relativity.  In some cases, these claims have bordered on racism (i.e. for reasons X, Y, and Z, Western European languages are superior, while other language groups are inferior).  So obviously, linguistic relativity can be a controversial subject. As part of my research for today’s post, I read this paper reviewing the origins and history of Sapir-Whorf/linguistic relativity, and I think one of the concluding remarks in that paper sums things up nicely:

Whorf may not have been right on all counts, but he was not wrong either.  The fact that language plays a role in shaping our thoughts, in modifying our perception and creating reality is irrefutable.

Personally, I can tell you that I’ve experienced some of the effects of linguistic relativity myself, many times over.  Every time I learn a new scientific term, I feel like a Klingon who just found out what a peacemaker is.  Sometimes, the change is small; other times, it feels like a major paradigm shift.  My mind seems to open up to new possibilities, and I find that I can conceptualize the world around me in a whole new way.

In my experience, learning new vocabulary (scientific vocabulary or otherwise) is the absolute best kind of learning.  And that, my friends, is why I write this Sciency Words series.

P.S.: If you watch that episode of Star Trek, you’ll note that Mr. Worf puts a lot of stank on the word “peacemaker,” suggesting that while the Klingons do have a word for that now, it’s a pejorative term.  The pejoration or amelioration of a word can also have subtle but profound effects on your thinking as an individual and on the collective thinking of a society.

Sciency Words: Safety Ellipse

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those wild and crazy words scientists use.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

SAFETY ELLIPSE

I don’t know about you, but when I’m trying to dock my shuttle pod with another spaceship, I like to take a few long, leisurely loops around that other spaceship first.  You know, like this:

Spaceships are pretty!  Who wouldn’t want to get a good look at them from every conceivable angle before completing docking maneuvers?  But it turns out that circling round and round a spaceship like this is not just for admiring the view.  It’s also for safety!  As explained in this paper:

A “safety ellipse” is an out-of-plane elliptical periodic relative motion trajectory around the primary spacecraft such that the trajectory never crosses the velocity of the primary.

That clear things up?  No?  Okay, how about a quote from this paper instead:

This paper defines a safe trajectory as an approach path that guarantees collision avoidance in the presence of a class of anomalous system behaviors.

Still confused?  Here’s a short video demonstrating what a safety ellipse (a.k.a. a safe trajectory) looks like:

Basically, if your shuttle pod experiences engine failure or any other major malfunction, flying in a safety ellipse ensures that you will not collide with the ship you were trying to dock with.  At least not for a good, long while.

I first heard about this term the other day while watching the livestream of the SpaceX Dragon capsule approaching and docking with the International Space Station.  Several times, the livestream commentators mentioned that Dragon was utilizing a “24 hour safety ellipse” or “24 hour safe trajectory,” meaning that if anything went wrong, mission control would have at least 24 hours to fix it before Dragon and the I.S.S. collided.

So remember, friends: the next time you’re going to dock with another spacecraft, do that out-of-plane elliptical periodic relative motion thing.  In other words, circle around the other ship a few times before making your final approach to dock.  It’s for safety reasons.

P.S.: It’s also for enjoying the view.  Spaceships are pretty!

Sciency Words: Data

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about science and science-related terminology.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

DATA

Okay, are you supposed to say “this data” or “these data”?  Are you supposed to say “the data is” or “the data are”?  In other words, are you supposed to treat “data” like a singular or plural noun?

Well, before I answer those questions, let me tell you something about English grammar that you already know, even if you don’t know that you know it.  English makes a grammatical distinction between count nouns (like shoe, child, or cactus) and mass nouns (like corn, furniture, or homework).

Count nouns have different singular and plural forms (shoe/shoes, child/children, cactus/cacti).  Mass nouns do not.  When was the last time you heard someone walk into a room and say, “Oh, look at all these furnitures”?

Traditionally, data has been treated as a count noun, with datum as the singular form and data as the plural.  This is consistent with the word’s Latin origin.  In Latin, datum meant something like “a thing that is given,” and so data would mean “things that are given.”

But of course, Latin is a dead language; English is still living, and in living languages words change.  Right now, “data” is in the process of changing from a count noun to a mass noun.  If I had to guess, I’d point the finger at personal computers for causing this change.  I imagine datum and data were once rather esoteric, rather academic words.  Then personal computers put the word “data” into the vocabulary of the masses—but not the word “datum.”

I mean, given how much (how many?) data computers process, how often would anyone need to talk about a single datum?  In our daily experience, a single bit of data is akin to a single grain of sand.  And so, much like the word “sand,” many of us have started treating “data” as a mass noun.  Those who still use “data” as a count noun are in the minority.

A few years ago, the statistics blog Five Thirty Eight conducted a survey asking, among other things, if people preferred “the data is” or “the data are.”  As Five Thirty Eight explains:

To those who prefer the plural, I’ll put this in your terms: The data are pretty conclusive that the vast majority of respondents think we should say “data is.”  The singular crowd won by 58 percentage-points, with 79 percent of respondents liking “data is” to 21 percent preferring “data are.”

There are still some contexts where saying “this data” or “the data is” would be frowned upon.  Basically, the more academic a setting you’re in, the more countable (and less mass-able) your data should be.  Although I’ve noticed that even the most persnickety of academics are more likely to talk about a singular “data point” rather than use the word “datum.”

Of course, none of this matters if you’re talking about Commander Data, the character from Star Trek.  In that context, Data is a proper noun, and therefore a countable noun, and therefore:

Science is Wrong About Everything

Hello, friends!  So one day when I was a little kid, I got into a huge argument with another kid in school.  I’d said something about how Earth is a sphere, like all the other planets.  The other kid told me (firstly) that Star Trek isn’t real and (secondly) that the earth is flat.

As evidence, the other kid told me to just look around.  It’s obvious that the world is flat.  If I needed more proof, I could look at a map.  More kids soon jumped into this argument.  They all agreed: the earth is flat, and also I’m a huge nerd for watching so much Star Trek.  I was outnumbered, and being outnumbered was further proof that I must be wrong.

I went home so mad that day.  How could those other kids be so stupid?  I was right.  Everybody else was wrong.  I’m tempted to turn this into a metaphor for Internet culture, but that’s not the point I want to make today.

Yes, when those other kids said the Earth is flat, they were wrong.  But when I said the Earth is a sphere, I was wrong too.  Less wrong, obviously.  But still, I was wrong.

Isaac Asimov’s essay “The Relativity of Wrong” is a brilliant summation of how science works.  It should be required reading for every human being (click here to read it).  As Asimov explains:

[…] when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong.  When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong.  But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

As Asimov goes on to explain, there was a time, long ago, when educated people really did believe the world was flat, and they had good reasons for thinking it to be so.  But then discoveries were made.  New knowledge was learned, and people came to think of the world was a sphere.  Then more discoveries were made, and people started to think of the world as an oblate spheroid (round, but slightly bulgy at the equator).  And then still more discoveries were made, and even the oblate spheroid model turned out to be slightly inaccurate.

People (including people on the Internet) will gleefully point out that science has been wrong about stuff in the past; therefore, science could be wrong about stuff today—stuff like evolution, climate change, general relativity—also stuff like vaccinations and COVID-19.  When science is wrong so much, why pay attention to science at all?

Well, it’s true.  In absolutist (this-or-that-ist) terms, science is wrong.  Science is always wrong, about everything, all the time.  Science is full of educated guesses and close approximations of observed reality.  It’s not perfect.  It will never be perfect.  But with each new discovery, science is a little less wrong today than it was yesterday.  And you can trust science to keep being less and less wrong, even if it will never be 100% right.

And that process of constant refinement and improvement, that process of getting closer and closer to the truth—that’s something worth paying attention to, something worth taking seriously, don’t you think?

P.S.: I’ll concede that those kids in school were right about one thing.  I was, and still am, a huge Star Trek nerd.

Being Polite to Siri

Hello, friends!

I recently bought a new phone, and I seem to have slipped into an odd new habit.  Whenever I ask Siri to do something for me, I say please.  And afterward, I say thank you.

Why do I do this?  Well, I could joke with you and say I’m worried about artificial intelligence taking over the world.  On the day when the machines overthrow their human masters, I’m hoping Siri will remember that I was one of the polite ones, and maybe then I’ll receive a less severe punishment than the rest of humanity.

But I won’t say that.  That would be silly.

Instead, I’m going to borrow a sentiment from Star Trek’s Ensign Sonya Gomez.  Why am I polite to technology?  Because why not?

Honestly, being polite to a machine costs you nothing.  And maybe if you practice good manners with your technology, you’ll develop other good habits, like having good manners when you interact with actual human beings.

Also, it really wouldn’t surprise me much if there’s a database somewhere where I’m flagged as one of the “polite ones,” and maybe someday that will become really important.

Next time on Planet Pailly, is it politically incorrect to talk about colonizing Mars?

Wisdom of Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not exactly the most beloved film in the Star Trek franchise.  It’s slow-paced.  It feels kind of sterile.  The uniforms look just awful.  But I recently found out about the director’s cut, and I have to say it’s a huge improvement.

Granted, the movie still has its problems.  Among other things, those uniforms still look awful.  But at least I felt like I was watching Star Trek and not a bad rip-off of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  And the movie was thought-provoking in the way that Star Trek—and in fact all of science fiction—ought to be.

The movie’s antagonist is a vast, near-unknowable alien intelligence, an intelligence which has come in search of its Creator, and which is threatening to wipe out all life on Earth if the Creator’s identity is not revealed.  Speaking of this vast, alien intelligence, Mr. Spock explains:

It only knows that it needs, Commander.  But like so many of us, it does not know what.

If I may get a little personal for a moment, I’ve been feeling a bit discouraged lately.  Discouraged about what?  My writing journey?  My career?  My personal relationships?  Take your pick!  I just feel like something is missing.  I need something, and frustratingly I don’t even know what that something is.

But after watching the director’s cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I’ve decided that’s okay.  That’s part of life.  We all go through this at some point or another.  This need for something—and the frustration of not even knowing what it is we need—is such a universal experience that even the most alien of alien intelligences may feel the same way sometimes.  I don’t know about you, but I find that to be a comforting thought.

P.S.: Well, it’s a comforting thought until some alien intelligence decides to take out its frustration on us Earthlings.

Sciency Words: Dreadnought

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

DREADNOUGHT

Okay, this isn’t really a scientific term.  It’s more of a science fiction thing.  This week, I ended up watching a video on YouTube about how science fiction borrows and sometimes misuses terminology from the navy.  If you’re a Sci-Fi fan, and especially if you’re a Sci-Fi creator, I think this video is worth your time.

For me, the most interesting of these terms was dreadnought, a word that literally means “I fear nothing.”  In Sci-Fi, dreadnoughts tend to be the biggest, scariest, most overpowered spaceships out there.  If you’re going into battle against a dreadnought, well… I guess it was nice knowing you.

In real life, the term dreadnought comes from the H.M.S. Dreadnought, a massively oversized, massively over-armed battleship that first went out to sea in 1906.  The idea for this ship was championed by Admiral Sir John Fisher, later known as Baron Fisher.

I couldn’t resist showing you Baron Fisher’s coat of arms. Note the family motto on the bottom. Image courtesy of Burke’s Peerage.

Admiral Fisher wanted an all-big-guns ship. No small guns.  No middling-sized guns.  Only the largest guns available at the time would be large enough for the H.M.S. Dreadnaught.  According to this article, the Dreadnought triggered something of an arms race between Britain and Germany, with each country trying to out-dreadnought the Dreadnought, so to speak.

Thus we have a case of what linguists call semantic generalization.  The specific name of one vessel became a generalized term for all the ships that followed a similar design philosophy.  And now the term has been adopted by the Star Trek and Star Wars universes, and many other Sci-Fi universes besides.

Personally, I think dreadnoughts in science fiction have become a bit cliché.  They’re the biggest, baddest ships in the galaxy, and yet somehow the good guys always find a way to blow them up.  But now that I know the history of the term, I kind of want to fit some dreadnoughts into my own Sci-Fi universe—probably in some clever, punny way that honors Admiral Fisher and the original H.M.S. Dreadnought.

Sciency Words: Yehudi Lights (The First Cloaking Device)

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

YEHUDI LIGHTS

Last week, we talked about cloaking devices, a term and a concept that were invented by the writers of Star Trek.  But in fact, during World War II the U.S. military conducted experiments that rendered aircraft virtually invisible.  The technology came to be known as the Yehudi lights.

Yehudi Menuhin was a well-known Jewish violinist at the time.  There ended up being a running joke about him on Bob Hope’s radio show, spawning popular (and very annoying) songs like this one:

Basically, Yehudi became the name for some mysterious person whom no one could seem to find.  In this declassified military document, he’s referred to as “the little man who wasn’t there.”  This is offered as an explanation for why the Yehudi lights got their name.

Essentially, the Yehudi lights were an optical illusion. To quote from that same declassified document:

It is known from data on the visual acuity of the human eye that, at a distance of two miles, individual lights are indistinguishable as such, if their spacing is less than about four feet.

So by mounting lights on the wings and forward fuselage of an aircraft, and matching the color temperature of those lights to the surrounding sky, and flying the aircraft in just the right way relative to an observer, you could create the illusion of invisibility.  At least from a distance.  But by the time you got close enough to an enemy target that the enemy could see you, it was probably too late for the enemy to do much about it.

Getting back to the Star Trek  universe, there is a constant “arms race” going on over cloaking technology.  The Federation keeps figuring out new ways to detect cloaked ships; the Romulans and Klingons keep figuring out ways to make their cloaked ships undetectable again.  No one ever seems to hold the advantage for long.

As Mr. Spock says about the latest Romulan cloaking device: “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all.”  The same could be said about the Yehudi lights. They worked well enough, but only for a brief while.  Then RADAR came along, and the Yehudi lights became basically useless.

Sciency Words: Cloaking Devices

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

CLOAKING DEVICES

There are certain topics that I think I know a lot about. Star Trek is one of those topics.  But this post is the story of me being wrong about Star Trek things.

Cloaking devices are a common trope in science fiction.  They’re most closely associated with the Romulans, an alien race that sneaks around the Star Trek universe in their invisible spaceships, like the invisible spaceship pictured below.

Star Trek often gets credit for popularizing cool ideas, but not for inventing them.  I always assumed Star Trek popularized the cloaking device trope, but I figured the writers must have gotten the idea from somebody else—probably one of the early Sci-Fi writers of the pulp era.

But I was wrong.  According to Brave New Words: The Oxford English Dictionary of Science Fiction, the writers of Star Trek really did come up with the whole cloaking device thing.  The term “cloaking device” first appeared in an episode called “The Enterprise Incident” in 1968.

Except being the knowledgable Star Trek fan that I am, I still thought Brave New Words had made a mistake.  If nothing else, they’d overlooked the 1966 episode “Balance of Terror,” when the Romulans and their cloaking technology made their first appearance (or rather, their first disappearance).

But again, I was wrong, technically speaking.  In “Balance of Terror,” Mr. Spock explains that the Romulans are using a “practical invisibility screen.”  The Romulan commander refers to this as a “cloak” or “cloaking system.”  But strictly speaking, no one ever uses the term “cloaking device.”

Even after reading other sources (like this one) that said Star Trek really did invent the term cloaking device, and furthermore that the term really was first used in “The Enterprise Incident” and not “Balance of Terror,” I still didn’t believe it. When you think you know so much about a topic, it’s hard to admit when you’re wrong.  I had to rewatch both episodes to see for myself.

The point of all this is not just to tell you a cool thing about the history of Star Trek or how Star Trek has contributed to the Sci-Fi lexicon.  The real lesson is this: no matter how knowledgeable you think you are about a given topic, there is always still something more you can learn!