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sion of a gene that does not involve a mu-

tation, but that is nevertheless inherited in

the absence of the signal or event that ini-

tiated the change”.

The rising popularity of ‘epigenetics’

in research has, however, expanded to in-

clude all kinds of processes associated with

gene control. For example, ‘epigenetic’ is

often used to refer to the chemical modifi-

cation of histones and how these chromo-

somal proteins may affect gene regulation.

This infuriates those who learned the classi-

cal definition because they say it puts these

modifications at the heart of development

and disease, despite scant evidence that

they are inherited. Kevin Struhl at Harvard

Medical School said that people only decid-

ed to define “histone marks” as epigenetic

because it makes them seem more inter-

esting. To which other researchers replied

that it is not about making things sound im-

portant, it is simply that they lack another

phrase, with which to collectively refer to

this type of work.

Yet, as


noted, whether a re-

searcher is – or is not – studying epigenet-

ics, may decide whether they have access

to certain research funds. In 2008, the US

National Institutes

of Health (NIH) dis-

tributed US$190

million as part of its

epigenomics initiative. In this research pro-

gramme, the NIH had been careful to de-

fine epigenetics as including both heritable

and non-heritable changes in gene activity.

Mark Ptashne describes this situation as “a

complete joke”.

Societal misunderstandings

The rise of the language of science not

only affects the general reader, it also poses

problems when teaching how to read and

understand science. This is another major

reason why academics study it – they want

to improve science education but have re-

alised that teaching scientific literacy in-

volves learning new language skills.

Specialised languages are used in

specific contexts to communicate special-

ised information but they can

operate at different

levels of specialisa-

tion. At its most re-

fined, this communi-

cation occurs within

a small circle of spe-

cialists but it can go

in the other direction

– from the specialised

scientific articles back

towards the common

language. This makes

it easier for non-spe-

cialists to read and

leads towards the pop-

ularisation of science,

e.g. popular science

books, news reports. An

extreme example of this

process is seen in a recent book on astro-

physics written using a restricted vocabu-

lary of 1,000 common words (see text box

“A New Language of Science” on this page).

‘Is the scientific paper a fraud?’

Misunderstandings have arisen about

how science is done and what it is commu-

nicating. For example, Peter Medawar (No-

bel Prize 1960 for discovery of acquired im-

munological tolerance) once presented a

talk for the


called “Is the scientific pa-

per a fraud?” He argued that scientific jour-

nal articles give a false impression of how

science proceeds because they misrepresent

“the processes of thought that accompanied

or gave rise to the work that is described”.

In this respect, the scientific article in its or-

thodox form embodies “a totally mistaken

conception, even a travesty, of the nature of

scientific thought”. His main concern was

that the highly formalised structure gives

only a sanitised version of how scientists

come to a conclusion and that it leaves no

room for authors to discuss the thought

processes that led to the experiments.

Half a century later, an essay in



extendedMedawar’s view to science

textbooks, claiming that the way textbooks

and research articles are used to teach un-

dergraduate students continues to convey

a misleading image of scientific research

(Revisiting “Is the scientific paper a fraud?’

EMBO reports

2014, 15:481). Susan How-

itt and Anna Wilson argue that research is

A New Language for Science


n his book “The Edge of the Sky — All you need to know about

the All-There-Is”, Roberto Trotta, an astrophysicist at Imperial

College London, discusses the universe in a language that is

limited to 1,000 frequently used English words. Since many of

the words he would normally have used did not occur on this list,

he had to find alternatives, e.g. ‘universe’ became ‘all-there-is’,

‘galaxies’ became ‘Star-Crowds’, ‘particles smashing together’

became ‘drops kissing each other’ and ‘scientists’ became


Trotta explains that in astrophysics there is always a problem when translating

the contents of mathematical expressions into natural language. Is any choice of words

sufficiently accurate for the purpose? Is ‘electron’ any better than ‘Very Small Drop’ to

describe what a physicist understands by that term, and all the complex quantum-mechan-

ical ideas associated with it? Despite its richness and many shades of subtlety, the English

language cannot replace the full depth of understanding allowed for by mathematics – no

natural language could.

The rules he adopted for his new science language are, firstly, that words from the

1,000 word list are allowed. From these words, regular plurals are combined with their sin-

gular forms (e.g. tree, trees; box, boxes). Variations of a verb ending in -ed, -ing or -(e)s are

lumped together with their root verb (e.g. smile, smiled, smiling, smiles). Adjective forms

ending in -er or -est are included with their positive form (sad, sadder, saddest). And words

ending in –’s are grouped with the form without the apostrophe (boy, boy’s; everything,

everything’s), except for a few common contractions (it’s; that’s). However, adverbs may

only be used if present in the list, e.g., ‘completely’ is allowed (because it appears on the

list), but ‘deeply” is not (because only ‘deep’ appears on the list). The names of people are

allowed but not place names.


- “The Edge of the Sky : All you need to know about the All-There-Is” Roberto Trotta (2014) Basic Books.

- ‘A new language for science’ 18/1/2016 -