Meaning less

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Samuel Arbesman makes some interesting points about the transformation of accepted knowledge ("Truth Decay", 22nd September, pp 37-39), but this is only part of the story. Not only does factual information evolve, but so does the language in which these facts are expressed. Scientists, for instance, are always inventing new concepts: bosons, quasars, dark matter, lasers, for instance. Before Joseph Black's work on latent heat, it wasn't that the specific heat of fusion of a substance had a different value than it does now, it's that the fact was inexpressible. In the other direction, we no longer ask for the phlogiston content of a substance, nor for the speed at which the Earth is travelling through the ether.

Such language evolution is not exclusively the preserve of science, but occurs in every aspect of our lives. It used to be the case that everyone had exactly one mother. The introduction of stepmothers and adopting mothers started to complicate this simple picture, but now we also have surrogate mothers - and we have yet to define the terminology we will need to distinguish the mother that provides the mitochondria from the one that provides the nucleus of the egg.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31
JournalNew Scientist
Issue number2887
Publication statusPublished - 19 Oct 2012

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