Words, Words, Words.

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, US


Recently I have felt overpowered by the Torquemadian terminology of contemporary biology. Consider the following passage from the Handbook of Protoctista, ed. Lynn Margulis, et.al. I opened the book randomly and landed in the chapter: "Phylum Plasmodial Slime Molds; Class Protostelida" by Frederick W. Spiegel. Now, I don't know Dr. Spiegel and I'm sure he knows what he's talking about and I do, as a matter of fact, find slime molds rather fascinating in spite of their name. Here's the passage:

"Another character of Eumycetozoa is that all species have mitochondria with tubular cristae (Olive, 1975; Dykstra, 1977). The major subgroups of Eumycetozoa are the myxomycetes (Myxogastria), the dictyostelid cellular slime molds (Dictyolstelia), and organisms with simple sorocarps resting on basal disks know as protostelids (Protostelia). Olive (1975) suggests that the myxomycetes and dictyostelids (both of which are generally accepted to be monophyletic groups) were each derived from separate protostelid ancestors and that the protostelids arose from a common mastigote ancestor." (p. 484)

A sure cure for insomnia? Well, not for me. I get irritated and want to know what's being said, but I know that that means hours of dictionaries and other reference books and so, I stay awake and write essays like this one.

Imagine the conversation at a cocktail party during a protozoological conference.

"Have you come across any interesting adoral membrane zones lately?"

"No, but I found some fascinating extrusomes in the flagellar fold of a cryptomonad that is a symbiont of Strongylocentrotus drobachiensis."

In response to such nomenclatural torment, I have taken refuge in the lush, and admittedly sometimes florid, 19th Century prose of Philip Henry Gosse's Evenings At The Microscope (Appleton and Co., New York, 1865). In this passage Gosse describes a section of a cuttlefish shell:

"We are looking now at the perpendicular section; is it not a beautiful object? You might fancy yourself looking at one of the noble icebergs that majestically navigate the polar seas, when it is rendered porous and laminated, by the rains of spring. You see a number of thin horizontal tiers or stages, perfectly parallel and equi-distant, about one-fortieth of an inch apart, rising above each other like the floors of an edifice. These are connected together by an infinite multitude of thin pillars of crystal, or rather leaves, some of which show their edges towards us, other their broader sides, and others are broked off at various distances, the fragments standing up from the floor, or depending from the roof, like stalactites and stalagmites in a cavern." (p. 45)

At least when I read Gosse, I feel a sense of passionate curiosity and his description makes me want to go look at whatever it is he is describing.
Not long ago, I encountered some specimens of Dinobryon for the first time. Dinobryon is a branching colony of flagellates, each cell of which has chloroplasts and is enclosed in a transparent vase-shaped envelope. This organism is often encountered as swimming colonies. Are these just parts of a larger colony? Do they ever attach? I don't know and I'm not sure anybody does. I suppose I could do a computer literature search and find some dandy articles filled with terminological torture that might or might not tell me. One of the dangers of getting intrigued by such an organism is that one has to learn a new language, but even then one may not find out what one wants to know. A second major problem is that the articles one does find on a given organism will be scattered throughout technical journals, both major and minor; and, in some instances, at least, to get the full story, one may need to know not only English and Biologese, but Polish, Russian, Italian, French, German, Danish, Dutch, and Japanese!

My wife can read Russian (but not Biologese) and I can read German and bits of French, Danish, and Dutch, but there's no way I'm going to learn Polish, Japanese, and Italian. I love Italian opera but as Sir Edward Appleton said, "I do not mind what language an opera is sung in so long as it is a language I don't understand." However, with these wonderful marvels under the microscope, I do want to understand as much as I can about them.

But back to Dinobryon. One reference tells me the "Dinobryon is a type of mixotrophic chrysophyte." (Patterson, Free-Living Freshwater Protozoa, (p. 37) Terrific. so, I look up "mixotrophic" and I find "used in reference to organisms that use a mixture of nutritional strategies, e.g. organisms that have chloroplasts and carry out photosynthesis, but which are also able to feed by phagocytosis." So, here we go again. I look up phagocytosis and find: "Phagocytose: to take food by phagocytosis, i.e., to ingest visible particles of food by enclosing them in a membrane to form a food vacuole."

Consulting Jahn's How To Know The Protozoa, we find the following description of Dinobryon: "Solitary or colonial with hyaline test. Each cell has two flagella unequal in length and two yellow-brown chromatophores. When a flagellate divides one of the filial cells forms a new test on the rim of the parent cell." O.K., so back to my Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1949 edition, p. 54). We find under hyaline: "1....Biochem a horny substance found in hydatid cysts, closely resembling chitin. 2. something glassy or transparent.—adj 3. glassy, crystalline, or transparent. 4. of or pertaining to glass. 5. amorphous; not crystalline."

Very well, Watson—on to "hydatid." Here's what we find: "Pathol.—n. 1. a cyst with watery contents that is produced in man and animals by a tapeworm in the larval state. 2. the encysted larva of a tapeworm; cystericercus." So, it's pretty evident that sense number 1 of "hyaline" is not relevant to our quest for understanding. I'm a bit puzzled at finding both sense 3 and sense 5 for "hyaline." Note that one of the characteristics listed in sense 3 is "crystalline" and sense 5 is "amorphous; not crystalline." A strange language, this English! George Bernard Shaw once observed that his fictitious word "ghoti" could be pronounced "fish" in English. I have forgotten the specific words he used to convey this, but we can easily provide our own. Take the "gh" form the word "tough"; take the "o" from the word "bishop";take the "ti" from the world "nation" and voila!—fish! I quite understand that languages are not logical, but to have definitions of "crystalline" and "not crystalline" for the same word, strikes me as worse than whimsical. In any case, sense number 3 is the one we're after: "glassy, crystalline, or transparent."

But I want to digress for a moment back to the biochemical definition which we rejected. My students love my digressions because they know that they won't be on their exams. The biochemical definition mentions "chitin." Let's go back to our friend Noah Webster, who, on the surface at least, was a stickler for precision. He had an extensive library in his house and his wife once caught him kissing the maid in library. "Mr. Webster, I am surprised!", she asserted. "No, madame. I am surprised. You are astonished," Webster countered. (Always nice to know little tidbits like this about the experts and authorities.) Chitin, Webster tells us, is : " a characteristic horny, organic component of the cuticula of arthropods." Now, although, old Noah may have been horny in the library, that's not what he meant when he talks about chitin.

Cuticula is defined as "the outer noncellular layer of the arthropod integument, composed of a mixture of chitin and protein, but commonly containing other hardening substances." Hang on, we're almost there—one more definition. Integument—"n.1. a natural covering, as a skin, shell, rind, etc. 2. any covering, coating, enclosure, etc."

So what have we learned? Well, we know that Dinobryon is a flagellate, is usually colonial, has chloroplasts and so is capable of photosynthesis, but can also feed by ingesting small particles, each organism is enclosed in a transparent covering and has two flagella, and it is not related (or only very indirectly) to lobsters.

When I started writing this essay and before it occurred to me to consult a dictionary, I wrote: "Dinobryon is a branching colony of flagellates, each cell of which has chloroplasts and is enclosed in a transparent vase-shaped envelope." This statement was based simply on my own observations and they are observations that almost any attentive amateur microscopist can make and ones which give a fairly good initial characterization of the organism without a whole truckload of turgid terminology.The scientific disposition towards precision can unfortunately lead to a loss of accuracy and intelligibility. The human psyche is often perversely attracted to extremes and scientists are certainly not exempt. If we were together in the same room, I could tell you where to stand by specifying the longitude and latitude in degrees, minutes, seconds, and probably even micro-seconds and nano-seconds. This, of course is pseudo-specificity. It would be much more accurate, not to mention, efficient, simply to say "Stand there" and point with my finger.

One sometimes also suspects pseudo-precision in certain formulae for micro-technique or culturing. There may be nearly a full page of ingredients, some of which are measured out to ten thousandths of a gram and then one comes across an entry something like: "calcium hypophosphate—a pinch." It reminds me of my grandmother's recipe for gravy, which neither my mother nor my wife have ever been able to duplicate. There was a dash of this, a few drops of that, a pinch of that, a handful of flour—but when she made it, it always turned out just exactly right. Now, it may very well be the case—it probably is—that the "pinch of calcium hypophosphate" is O.K. because it turns out that it really doesn't matter whether you add 0.02 gm. or 0.90 gm. (or however much there is in a pinch), but, nonetheless, it still makes me suspicious. The whole formula would just sound better if the entry read: "calcium hypophosphate—0.30 gm."

But back to the central theme, which, if you haven't figured it out yet is about words, communicating, and style. Victorian naturalists may have sinned on the side of flowery excess, but contemporary scientists sin on the side of sterility, unnecessary jargon, and just plain dullness. The zest is gone from this prose; it's like balloon skeletons—flaccid latex and no helium. Now, it is true that page charges in scientific journals are outrageously expensive. Why are they so expensive? Because the journals have so few subscriptions. Here we find biologists writing about some of the most bizarre, interesting, exotic, and colorful entities on the planet in a style so terminologically dense as to be soporific to the most intransigently chronic insomniac.

Science is a series of types of human activities and a significant, in fact, essential part of its character involves the reawakening of a sense of wonder, awe, astonishment—what the ancient Greeks called thauma. I vividly recall a day when one of my colleagues, a protozoologist who is a fine optical microscopist and was director of the electron microscopy laboratory as well, said to me: "You know, I could spend all of my time just watching these critters." Leeuwenhoek essentially did just that and in a broader context, so did Darwin. Today we are too busy; there is too much data—much of it unimportant; new technologies, such as the World Wide Web allow even the least informed to express absurd opinions about all and sundry. I sometimes think that one should have to take a test in order to have access to the Internet, just as one has to pass a driver's test before getting a license to operate an automobile. And then I look around at automobile drivers and despair. But, perhaps scientists should have to periodically demonstrate that they can write intelligibly and interestingly without hiding behind jargon, perhaps a required essay on frogs, "Brekekekex kox, kox, brekekekex, kox, kox!"

Comments to the author Comments to the author sent via our contacts page quoting page url plus : ('rhowey','')">Richard Howey welcomed.

Editor's notes:
The author's other articles on-line can be found by typing in 'Howey' in the search engine of the Article Library, link below.

The quote in the last line above, is the refrain of the frog's chorus from Aristophanes' play 'Frogs' written 405BC. Click here for an interesting web site discussing this and other aspects of frogs. Click here for the text of the play.


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