Wednesday, May 2, 2007

"their wings have teeth"

I like to tease mathematicians for their propensity to turn perfectly
ordinary, useful English into 100% incomprehensible jargon. Not that
other fields are in any way innocent of creating
incomprehensible jargon, but often they are much more straightforward
about it. They just make their jargon up. Chemists find an enzyme, and
name it ribulose 1,5 bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase, affectionately nicknamed rubisco (short but nonsensical, you won't confuse it with your shoe). Physicists measure some material property and call it viscoelastoplasticity,
which twists your tongue around as a sort of warning that it's about to
kick your brain in the privates. Biologists have invented the most
exclusive language of all by naming every organism uniquely, usually
with as many syllables as possible. Maybe you recognize Felix or Canis as your loyal household friends, but how about Tursiops? Carassius? Melopsittacus?

But
mathematicians are sly. They talk to one another with deceptively
simple words, words you thought you understood, words like "set" and
"real", "trivial" and "and". After a few minutes of listening to this,
you realize that, like high schoolers, they have turned your native
tongue into an utterly unknown foreign language.

However, during
lunch the other day I realized (with a combination of delight and
horror) that biologists have managed the same feat. It happened during
a discussion of geniculate corallines. A friend asked me to collect
some Calliarthron for him, and I confessed that I often confused Calliarthron with Bossiella.
So far, so good--the casual listener has no idea what we're talking
about, and he knows he has no idea, because the words make no sense.

Then my friend told me how to identify Calliarthron. "Their wings have teeth," he said.

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