In defense of compassionate sesquipedalianism

24 October 2006

A word about jargon. I recently attended a public talk given to a general audience by an engineer working in astronomy. The engineer used terms like ‘primordial magnetic field,’ ‘wavefront sensor,’ and ‘absorption bands,’ without blushing. The only thing that distinguished the talk from a conference presentation was the redaction (or, more accurately, reduction) of charts, equations, and acronyms. Audience response fell almost completely bimodally: by the end, people were either snoring or blathering. The only possible defenses against such unabashedly obtuse talk were falling asleep or agreeging that, of course, the emperor’s new clothes were very nice.
Another incident that brought the previous one into sharper focus for me occurred a few days later. Two professors of humanities had learned via their eleven-year-old daughter’s science homework that matter had overflowed the bounds of the traditional three states of solid, liquid, and gas. Added to the map, so they bemusedly understood, was plasma. Exactly how this newcomer fit the common landscape or how it differed from the three of immemorial custom was even less clear than the existence of this modified geography.
These two fiercely curious, well-educated people were blissfully unaware of the developments in physical chemistry, high-energy physics, and astronomy that led to the recognition of this ‘new’ state of matter. And why shouldn’t they be? Plasma doesn’t exist in our immediate environment, unless perhaps it is trapped inside your TV by dimly grasped powerful forces. But the conditions of existence necessary for plasma and those for us are mutually exclusive. And until somebody develops the elusive but apparently ubiquitous Mr. Fusion, we’re unlikely to be in close proximity to plasma in our daily lives.
And yet, the engineer of the first paragraph felt that terms far more complicated than mere plasma could be deployed with impunity towards an audience of unknown education and familiartity with the material. The respective responsibilities of the citizen and the researcher to one side, an honest evaluation of and empathy with our fellow travellers might be beneficial. For each of us to admit, perhaps only to ourselves, that we are not always experts but sometimes novices, does us good. And as for plasma being an abstract and unknown concept, it is massively embodied in one very vital place we encounter every day—the Sun.


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