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Science in a Hundred Words

January 26, 2012

Children often offer unique insights into everyday situations, possibly because their logic is unencumbered by social convention. From this idea, we get the idiom, "Out of the mouths of babes." The full idiomatic expression is, "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings...," which appears twice in the Bible (Psalms 8:2 and Matthew 21:16). Since the word, "suckling," is not part of normal conversation, that part is never said.

This idea was commercialized by the television series, "Kids Say the Darndest Things," a spin-off from House Party, a long running radio show hosted by Art Linkletter. In this program, children were interviewed with the expected comical consequences. The inventors among us will be interested to note that Linkletter was a major investor in the commercialization of the hula hoop.

La Ciencia (Science), oil on canvas, c. 1884, by Antonio Cortina Farinos (1841-1890)

Never too young for science!

An artistic representation of science as a cherub. It's interesting that the artist identifies science with mathematics.

La Ciencia (Science), oil on canvas, c. 1884, by the Spanish artist, Antonio Cortina Farinós (1841-1890).

(Via Wikimedia Commons))

In a 2008 letter to Nature,[1] Marco Prunotto of the Nephrology Unit Laboratory, Giannina Gaslini Children's Hospital (Genoa, Italy), described a science crowdsourcing study with high school aged children, aged 16-18. This was done in the context of a workshop sponsored by the San Paolo Fondazione per la Scuola and Fondazione Venezia. The idea of this study was simple - The high school aged children from Italian schools were tasked with developing a list of a hundred words that they believed embodied science as practiced today.

There was one thing done in this study that I, as an experimentalist, would not have done. The children prepared the list after listening to a series of seminars by scientists, so there might be bias according to the topic areas selected for presentation, and the individual preferences of the scientist presenters. The students, however, had other resources, such as the Internet, books and journals, to guide them. The scientist mentors for this workshop worked in the fields of Chemistry, Astronomy, Physics and Biology.

That one problem notwithstanding, here's the list.[1-2]

acid/base galaxy planet
aggregation gene pollution
analysis gravity pressure
antimatter greenhouse effect probability
apparatus H2O protein
atmosphere heat pulsar
atom hydrocarbon quantum
bacteria infinity quark
Big Bang intelligence radioactivity
biodiversity Internet reaction
bioethics life relativity
biosphere link research
black hole light reproduction
carbon magnetism rule
cell matter science
chaos mass symbiosis
climate mind systems
cloning metabolism solution
DNA scientific method space
ecosystem measurement species
element mole stem cell
electricity molecule star
electron motion technology
energy mutation temperature
entropy natural selection theory
environment nebula time
enzyme neuron tissue
equilibrium GMO (genetically modified organism) tumor
error organism Universe
experiment osmosis vacuum
ethology particle virus
evolution periodic table wave
force pH  
fossil photosynthesis  

As Marco Prunotto commented in his letter to Nature, there are words on the list, such as acid, base, magnetism, mole and scientific method, that could have been on a similar list a hundred years ago. But there are also words that relate to ethical issues that would have been absent in an earlier era. Of course, "Internet" is one word known to only a few just two decades ago, but it's a major part of science today. This blog serves as one example.


  1. Marco Prunotto, "Shaping science education in just 100 words," Nature, vol. 455, no. 7212 (September 25, 2008), p. 460. A PDF version of the article is available, here.
  2. The 100 Words (100 parole) web site.                         

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