The cellar door of science

7 May 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in speaking science

cellar door

A cellar door. Sounds nice. Credit: Kris Krug

When communicating science, jargon can be a barrier to understanding. On the other hand, there are some terms in the language of science which are quite beautiful as words for their own sake. Often, they have quite evocative meanings, too. [1] Could words which are inherently nice to hear or read be a useful hook for grabbing an audience?

I'm particularly partial to the word "aurora". It has the added advantage of being associated with several beautiful phenomena, but I think I also just like the way it sounds. [2] Although... I wonder whether that's really true. To what extent is it possible for me to think about the word "aurora" without picturing lights in the sky?


"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"

a rose

Illustrating the importance of the name of the rose. Credit: Georges Seguin

Juliet famously loves Romeo regardless of his family name. Supposedly, a thing or person's "essence" is independent of the label attached to it. This is an intriguing thought. However, we students of communication know that the perception is sometimes just as relevant as the reality.

This isn't a purely philosophical point. Indeed, research has shown that a rose given other names really doesn't smell as nice. Names and words matter to how we think about the world.

There's plenty more to be said about this topic, but this will do for now.



[1] This post was inspired by an idea from Becky Wragg Sykes. Over on her blog The Rocks Remain, Becky has listed a few of her own favourite beautiful science words, including "endling" and "parsec"

[2] On the other hand, I don't want to stray too far into woody/tinny territory...



Over to you:

  • What are your favourite-sounding science words?
  • Have you ever seen an aurora? Is it as beautiful as the hype suggests?
  • When did you last smell a rose?

12 Responses to “The cellar door of science”

  1. Simon Clare Reply | Permalink

    Lovely post, cheers.

    We named our daughter Aurora. She went nameless for a few days as her mother and I tried to come up with a word that we were happy to attach to her for the rest of her life. We tried inventing new names but they were all awful. None of the conventional ones appealed to us either; it felt somehow wrong to attach a word already commonly used as a name to something so unique and fresh.

    We resorted to going through the songs we both loved and quickly came across Veruca Salt’s ‘Aurora’. As well as loving the song anyway, the word Aurora suited our aesthetic tastes while also being relatively unconventional as a name for a person in the UK.

    On hindsight, I do wonder if choosing such a pleasing word has helped shaped her into who she now is. It’s hard to shorten Aurora, so even when we had to tell her off (very rare) the word Aurora would pop up, marginally softening an otherwise stressful conversation. She’s 12 now, and brilliant.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      What a charming story, Simon, thanks for sharing it!

      The effect of people's names on their personalities is a bit of a minefield when it comes to research. I don't mean like those keyrings that say "Alex is a strong person", but rather ideas like "nominative determinism", i.e. people with names near the start of the alphabet might be more confident because their names are called out first in school, or similar.

  2. Becky Wragg Sykes Reply | Permalink

    Thanks for featuring my page Alex, and happy it inspired you too!
    I agree, aurora is an especially attractive word. I think there's something in addition to the connotations of its meanings; the way it has a soft but long and repeated sound is also unusual in English.
    I've added it my list, and also am posting a few more that I've been mentally collating.
    Thanks again!

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      I think I'm glad it's not just me that likes "aurora", and thanks for sharing your insight into why that might be.

      Cheers for linking back, too.

  3. Ernesto Sanchez Reply | Permalink

    Aurora is a common name for women in Spanish and also aurora means not only the polar aurora but the dawn. So Spanish speakers can actually watch auroras every day ;) but I have never seen a polar one. There is a report of an aurora borealis that was observed in the XVIIIth century as far south as Mexico City. Nevertheless aurora is rather a poetic way to describe the dawn and it's used in sentences such as "la luz de la aurora" ("the light of dawn"). We say usually "amanecer" instead.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for your comment Ernesto.

      There are also French women called Aurore, and it also means sunset - well done for spotting that, which was why I used the plural of "phenomenon2 in the post. However, the polar auroras are supposedly far more stunning than even the most beautiful sunsets... perhaps that's something to do with their rarit. Any thoughts?

      The opposite of aurore is aube, although that's not used as a name (unlike Aude, but that's another story).

  4. Marco Langbroek Reply | Permalink

    I have seen Aurora borealis (both from the Netherlands and from the Arctic circle), and it can be absolutely stunning (but isn't always), even from Dutch latitudes (52 N). If you have a strong display with lots of colour and fast movement, it is marvelous and very impressive.
    Here are some images I made from 66 N (Finland) during the strong Aurora of 17 March 2013:
    I also made a time-lapse movie which can be seen here:

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Those are some stunning pictures Marco, thanks for sharing! I've visited Finland before but didn't see any aurora, I think I will just have to go back...

  5. elkement Reply | Permalink

    It is hard to come up with a scientific term as beautiful as "aurora". However, since you asked for your readers favorite terms:
    I had once worked with excimer lasers - cool machines but I also liked the sound of the name: "excimer". Doesn't it sound like an exotic animal?
    As an aside, it is a portmanteau word as well, denoting "excited dimer". However, when you asked for portmanteaus in one of your earlier posts, I could not remember any. So terms in my brain are obviously tagged as "beautiful", but not as "portmanteau".

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      An "exscimer" could well be a jungle-dwelling lizard of some kind - great word, Elke, thanks!

  6. Sarah Reply | Permalink

    When I studied geology in undergrad one of my classmates named her kitten Thalweg after a scientific term we learned in geomorphology class. I've always loved that word. I also love dendrite, alluvial, cordierite, and xenocryst. Tons of fun words in geology!

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      "Thalweg"... from the German for "valley path"? Sounds like something from The Lord of the Rings, great name for a cat! "Dendrite" is a fun one because it turns up in biology, too.

      If only geology had been presented in terms of more exciting words at school, I might have studied it more afterwards!

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