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The Language of Science

“Scientific images are multipurpose tools: they represent things, relationships, even arguments. But just as a map does not duplicate the territory it represents, words do not mirror the world in every detail.”

Science has struggled with words since the seventeenth century—yet not only has science never been speechless: it has been all about communication. This happens first and foremost between scientists, but also with and among a broader public fascinated by the latest discoveries and inventions, and speculations about fossils, electricity, atoms, computers, genes, and galaxies. How have the words we use for science evolved over the past 175 years? Director Emerita Lorraine Daston explores this fascinating question in Scientific American, reflecting on the myriad relationships between science, research, and language with the help of visualizations of word use in the publication since 1845 to the present day.

“Into the crack between words and things sprang images,” explains Daston. Modern science therefore is ingeniously, intrinsically, and extravagantly visual. And because the topic of interest changes over time, as Daston shows, no single image is able to tell the whole story.