November 18, 2006

Linguistics in the service of astrophysics

I happened to recall today, while socializing with some astronomer friends, that some time around fifteen years ago a couple of UC Santa Cruz astrophysicists came to me in my capacity as a linguist and asked me if I thought I could coin for them a one-word term to denote the ratio between rate of rotation of a cloud of objects rotating in 3-dimensional space such as an accretion disk (this quantity is known as vorticity) and the average number of objects visible in a unit area of the 2-dimensional outer surface of the 3-dimensional cloud (known as the surface density). I thought about it overnight, and soon got back to them with my suggestion: vortensity. The term was promptly used in a scientific paper, with a footnote credit for linguistic assistance, and it caught on. I was pleased to note just now that my term gets over 230 Google hits. Not bad for a technical word used in such a rarefied discipline.

I did that piece of terminology coinage pro bono. There are companies (Lexis Branding, for example) that charge fees in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars when doing similar work for corporations. I work cheap for my friends and colleagues at UCSC's Astronomy and Astrophysics department. The permanent place in the scientific literature is its own reward. But in addition it's a nice feeling to know that I have a cast-iron response ready for any arrogant physical scientist (in the unlikely event that an arrogant physical scientist should ever come along; I know it's implausible) who might dare suggest that linguistics has no role to play in serious science. It'll be one of those finger- in- the- chest "oh- yeah- lemme- tell- you- something- pal" moments, won't it?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 18, 2006 12:36 AM