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Archive for the ‘Definition’ Category

I wanted to post this article from yesterday’s New York Times about the synthesis of a new element. But, I feel I can only do this remarkable discovery justice by explaining it in the context of two words form chemistry that are often used, but seldom defined: element and atom.
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In 1930, American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. From 1930 to 2006, students all over the world learned this Gospel truth: our Solar System (consisting of the sun and everything that orbits it) has 9 planets. However, in 2006, Pluto lost its planetary status. Since then, students (at least those with up-to-date textbooks) have learned a new truth: our Solar System contains 8 planets, and a growing number of dwarf planets.
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I first fell in love with biology over an incredibly nerdy subject that was worthy reason for any bully to beat me up in high school: taxonomy. If you’re thinking about stuffed animal carcasses posed gaily on fireplace mantles, I’m afraid you’re mistaken1. Taxonomy is the system and processes biologists use to classify organisms2. The two main purposes of this classification scheme are to define an organism using a strict set of criteria, and to see the evolutionary relationships between different organisms.
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Human beings love to define things. Often, our faith in the world around us rests on the strict definition of things. “This is always this… That is always that.” But, at least sometimes, don’t we draw rather arbitrary distinctions when splitting This from That? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Many realms of science rest on a firm separation of This from That. It’s a necessary task, especially when it comes to communicating our findings and discoveries to other scientists and the general public. This is a living organism, but That is not. This is a planet, while That is a star. That is a rock, while This is not. What are the criteria behind some of these definitions? Are they firm? Have they stood the test of time? Are they arbitrary? Fundamental? Useful?

I hope to address some of science’s wild definitions with this blog. Perhaps together, we can begin to appreciate the faith, logic, and solid facts that make up the art of defining things in our universe.

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