Beyond the Book: The Ambiguities of Scientific Language

Personally, I think that popular science books ought to devote more pages to the issue of how language is used in science. The words scientists choose are central to communication and miscommunication both among researchers and between scientists and non-scientists. The problem is that all language is full of misnomers and contradictory definitions, and scientific language is no exception.

One especially problematic scientific word is “matter.” It has multiple and partly contradictory meanings within particle physics, astronomy and cosmology. For instance,

  • (Quote) It’s not even clear that “dark matter,” a term used widely by astronomers and particle physicists alike, is actually matter.
  • (Endnote) Among possible dark matter particles are axions and dark photons, neither of which would obviously qualify as “matter.”*

Why might one not view them as matter?

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