Chemical Language Translated

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During my time at the Royal Society of Chemistry (do I sometimes make it sound like a prison sentence?), I watched in awe as my old mucker Andrew Wilkinson helped reformulate the IUPAC book of chemical definitions commonly known as the Gold Book. That mighty auric tome is online and searchable with a click these days. And is as useful as ever to chemists looking for a quick description for a jargon word.

Take chiral, for instance: “Having the property of chirality“. Hmmm. So, look up chiral: “The geometric property of a rigid object (or spatial arrangement of points or atoms) of being non-superposable on its mirror image; such an object has no symmetry elements of the second kind.” Such a crisp and easily comprehended definition. Not.

Obviously, there is a need for technical definitions, but somtimes such definition simply complicate something that could be just as easily described often with a single word. Chiral = handed. (The clue’s in the word itself, which comes from the Greek for hand and I’m pretty sure the scientist who coined the term did so to save us all the trouble of talking about non-superimposable mirror image objects (you know, like hands and gloves?). Indeed, many a chemistry student would grasp the concept much faster and many a lay reader of a scientific paper would understand if such terms were explained in parallel with their simpler analogue. So, for all you non-chemists, here’s a Boxing Day list together with links to their technical definitions if you need the fully Monty,

  • Chiral – handed
  • Hydrophobic – water hating
  • Hydrophilic – water loving
  • Micelle – microscopic bubble
  • Cyclodextrin – starch rings
  • Mass – how much stuff
  • Isotope – same element, different mass
  • Bond – a link between atoms
  • Organic – made with carbon
  • Inorganic – made without carbon
  • Lipid – Oily or fatty natural molecule
  • Morphology – shape
  • Half life – Time taken for value to half
  • Second Life – Virtual meeting place

Obviously, these simple definitions gloss over the finer details, but isn’t that the point of a glossary? “Professionals often face difficulties explaining these terms to lay people because they are too aware of the exactness of the concept, emphasizing both the morphological and functional aspects,” says chemist Andrew Sun, recently interviewed in Reactive Reports. There are many more I use in writing for a non-technical audience, but some jargon words are quite stubborn. Are there any good, simple definitions for the following?

  • Polymer
  • Sublime
  • Catalyst

8 thoughts on “Chemical Language Translated”

  1. I think in most lay contexts, the “unchanging-ness” is irrelevant, but perhaps a simple, single word could come from a lay definition – motivator. It does what it says on the tin and most people don’t think of a motivator as being “changed” at the end of the motivational process.

  2. Actually, I’d say the following of catalyst:

    catalyst = makes things (reactions) easier/possible

    It has the advantage of being the actual usage outside chemistry. Would a layman assume a catalyst gets consumed (and thus need the explanation it regenerates)? And does “speeds up” convey the full significance of the presence (or not) of a catalyst?

  3. Andrew, you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s all about knowing one’s audience. Who’s to say who is and who isn’t a lay person, after all? Is a molecular biologist a lay person when it comes to particle physics and vice versa, for instance?

  4. The definition of catalyst by Harmon although longer is better. ‘…while regenerating itself to do it again’–cool! It makes clear what’s mistaken even by some professionals that catalyst does not stay intact throughout the process although it looks so at the beginning and end.

    Definitions for layman should be useful by layman. When layman is (forced maybe) adding some catalyst to their reaction they can say they are adding something that “speeds up … again’, or simply, ‘reaction promoter’ . And when a layman see something sublimed they can say it just evaporated without being melted. But when a layman is playing polymer clay can they be satisfied by saying they are actually playing chains of molecules? or some long molecules, no matter what’s repeated in them? I mean when you define something for laymen you should define the FORM of that thing that laymen most likely contact with.

  5. CMC Guy, thanks for those additional definitions. Reaction promoter kind of sounds like some sort of public relations person who deliberately provokes celebrities to get them into the tabloids ;-)

  6. Indeed a good list to convey meanings for examples of jargon

    Simplier Possibilities:

    Polymers = chains of molecules
    sublime = solid changes directly to gas
    catalyst = reaction promoter

  7. Nice definitions Harmon, I’m going to have to come up with a few more chemical keywords that need simple definitions and perhaps create a tech to lay glossary…

  8. Polymer = long molecule made of linked repeating subunits
    sublime = evaporate a solid (without melting it)
    catalyst = substance that speeds up a reaction while regenerating itself to do it again

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