Monday, May 31, 2010

Language leads to scientific understanding

I am currently working on my Ph.D. candidacy report. The topic is on optical sensing and manipulation of cells. While brainstorming for the abstract, I wrote the following expression: "Organisms are organized hierarchically..."

Of course I immediately realized that "Organisms are organized" sounds redundant. But it did make me notice the connection between the two words and their common root. Life is built from inter-dependent structures that form higher levels of  organized complexity; from a reductionist standpoint, it is a system of organization built on lower level systems of organization. Hence, we have the word organism.

This little personal epiphany probably impresses only me, but I think it serves as a reminder to everyone that language can very often lead to a deeper understanding of a topic. We need only look to the literal meaning behind an object or phenomenon's name to connect it with a more familiar idea.

What's also interesting about this particular example is that the meaning of the word "organism" suggests that when the term was coined people already understood that lifeforms were made of some sort of hierarchical structure. According to, the word's origin comes from around 1650. Not surprisingly, this is roughly the same time that Robert Hooke began looking at cells through microscopes. So not only can the literal meaning of a phenomenon's name lead to a more intuitive understanding of the phenomena, but so to can the name's etymology place the idea within a historical context.