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Jun 25, 2023
This week’s theme
Words from science

This week’s words
critical mass

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Relative usage over time

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AWADmail Issue 1095

A Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Tidbits about Words and Language

Sponsor’s Message: “I hate fake.” Joe E. Buoy, The Steel Onion. OLD’S COOL fits wicked smart dads to a Tee. Free shipping today only. Shop now.

From: Susan Prock (prockness hotmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--radioactive

I’ve been a subscriber for at least 15 years. I am baffled by the implication that religion is ignorance and is the opposite of science. Science and religion are by no means incompatible. Many scientists, over millennia, are/were deeply religious.

Susan Prock, Orange, Virginia

We are happy to have you here. Some people, including scientists, are able to keep both science and religion by compartmentalizing. They don’t subject their religious beliefs to the same rigor (or any rigor).

We received lots of emails this week. Some was from readers personally vouching for the truthiness of god, some making personal attacks, some saying it’s impolite to discuss religion, and more. Some claimed that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria, i.e. they are completely different domains. But religion makes claims about the natural world all the time.

As I said earlier, it comes down to this: What works and what makes excuses. Science proves religious claims wrong all the time (Earth is flat, the sun goes around the Earth, earthquakes mean God is angry, prayer works, and so on). Are you aware of any instance where religion has proven science wrong? Also see God of the gaps.

-Anu Garg

From: Elaine Clow (elaine.clow gmail.com)
Subject: scientific words

Pythagoras and disinformation

Elaine Clow, Boscawen, New Hampshire

From: Mark Chartrand (mrc mrchartrand.com)
Subject: Science vs. belief

My late friend Isaac Asimov, who talked about the difference between “received knowledge” (i.e., beliefs) and science, is credited with this superb contrast: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny.” This leads to progress: the follow-up is further research which results in either “Oops, we made a mistake” or “We have found and confirmed this new knowledge.”

Mark Chartrand, Baltimore, Maryland

From: Billy Rainbow (billyr cruzio.com)
Subject: Belief-based vs Reason-based Systems

The real crime is that with belief-based systems, one can believe whatever one wants and that’s the end of it. There’s no point in debating it, because one belief is as good as any other for believers. Whatever god, the Great Pumpkin, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it doesn’t matter. Someone believes in it, that’s the end of the discussion. We see a lot of that these days. Ok, we always have seen a lot of that in every age, surely less so now than before, it’s just that now there’s even less excuse for it -- and your priceless take on it from today’s A.Word.A.Day intro is refreshing and timely.

Billy Rainbow, Santa Cruz, California

From: Leslie P. Lowe (leslie leslie.ms)
Subject: faith

My favorite quotation about this dichotomy is from Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, although sadly I must admit I doubt both the accuracy and the source: “Religion is a culture of belief; science is a culture of doubt.”

As a tool, down here in the south when one encounters a Christian witness on every corner, even in the French Quarter in NOLA, I’ve found that the most polite and efficient way to shut down such drivel is to confess to the evangelical: “I’m sorry, I’ve tried hard, but I just don’t have the gift of faith.” They don’t need to know that I’m so glad not to have that gift, that burden!

Leslie Lowe, New Orleans, Louisiana

From: Tracy L. Malloy (tracylepardmalloy gmail.com)
Subject: Science versus religion

Yours was the funniest science vs. religion argument I’ve read so far, and I had to share it with my atheist friends. I will also be sharing with my co-religionists in the Bahá’í Faith, which is based upon, among other principles, the basic unity of all religions, manifesting from a single divine unknowable Creator, and the agreement of science and religion, both being studies of one creation.

Your argument is all true and wonderful and hilarious. You gave me such joy today. Thank you.

Tracy L. Malloy, Lancaster, California

From: Vaishnavi Varnamala Dharam Lal (babita.dharam gmail.com)
Subject: A science story

I work in science, more specifically in astronomy and astrophysics. My institute runs the observatory GMRT near Pune, India. It was opened for observing time to users worldwide.

The observatory has a canteen, which serves food typical of this region. The international users try local cuisines and after a bite or two they say it is hot! We coined the terms thermal hot and non-thermal hot, where thermal hot was attributed to the temperature hotness and non-thermal hotness to spiciness. This analogy fit well, since thermal and non-thermal astrophysical emission phenomena are very common, where the former is due to the characteristic temperature of the source while the latter (e.g., synchrotron emission) is commonly seen in radio emitting sources.

Dharam Vir, Pune, India

From: Nancy Konopka (nancy.konopka gmail.com)
Subject: Working in a Diagnostic Laboratory

I have spent my career working in a hospital laboratory, using complex instruments, microscopes and manual techniques to analyze blood for the presence or absence of disease. We have a saying, “Without the lab, your doctor is guessing.” It’s a generalization, of course, but it holds much truth: in some types of situations, 70% of diagnoses have a basis in lab test results.

Nancy Konopka, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

From: Elizabeth Block (elizabethblock netzero.net)
Subject: Plate tectonics

I’m not a scientist, but here’s a story from the science course I took in college, Nat Sci 10, aka Geology 1. One day the prof turned the lectern over to two grad students, who debated what was then called continental drift. I don’t remember what they said -- probably one said how improbable it was, the other brought up things like the fit of the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa. But it was memorable because I realized that this was science in the making. Not settled facts, not out of the textbook, but controversial, a matter of argument. This was 1962. It’s not a matter of argument anymore, of course.

Elizabeth Block, Toronto, Canada

Email of the Week brought to you buy OLD’S COOL -- fits OK boomer dads and granddads to a Tee.

From: Bob Weggel (bob_weggel mindspring.com)
Subject: A way of knowing

As a scientist who was named a world-record magnet designer in 1980s editions of the Guinness Book of World Records, I believe the essence of science is its way of knowing. The “scientific method” is eternal; the compass for our voyage across uncharted seas. As the scientific body of knowledge evolves, so should our actions. Fie on those who criticized Fauci for “flip-flopping”!

Bob Weggel, Reading, Massachusetts

From: Robert L Wilson (wilson math.wisc.edu)
Subject: broad-spectrum

The word spectrum is certainly not restricted solely to light. One of the big battles of our time is between the commercial interests wanting to take possession of more and more of the RF (Radio Frequency) spectrum -- which encompasses TV, X-rays, and various other phenomena -- and our rights as citizens who were there first! The word spectrum applies to any kind of radiation, including the electromagnetic variety such as light and radio waves, but also to sound and other things.

The first “radio transmitters” using sparks were very broad spectrum. Then governments stepped in to regulate things so that many could use the spectrum at once without interfering with each other. So for most of the 20th and 21st centuries all kinds of radio, such as TV, were broadcast on narrow slices of the spectrum. Broad spectrum was sometimes used specifically to cause interference, e.g. to keep US radio signals from being very well heard in Cuba. There are still intentional interference sources from Russia, frequently sounding like a noisy saw. There are international agreements to prevent that, but they aren’t any more reliable than other agreements that some governments choose to disagree with or ignore.

Robert Wilson, Fitchburg, Wisconsin

From: Kwa Tjong Liem (kwatjliem gmail.com)
Subject: high-octane

Using petrol with a higher octane number than required for a particular engine does not improve its performance but merely costs more.

Kwa Tjong-Liem, Singapore

From: Craig Good (clgood me.com)
Subject: octane number

The counterintuitive thing for most people is that there’s less energy in a gallon of high octane gasoline than in low octane.

High horsepower engines use greater compression, requiring more knock resistance, hence the association with more powerful cars.

Craig Good, Vallejo, California

From: Kent Rhodes (krho1 aol.com)
Subject: Viral

Not sure what it would look like or how it might work, but there are times it would be nice to have antivirals to use on social media.

Kent Rhodes, Charlotte, North Carolina

From: Bill Rausch (billrausch gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--critical mass

I’m not particularly happy with your definitions this week. The words you have chosen are, in my mind, still mostly used for their original meanings. Yet in your definitions you have reversed the order of the definitions to make the alternative usage seem more important.

I’m an engineer and I actually use these words. I suppose that I’m inclined to nitpick, but I really feel that you’re being slightly misleading by your choices. It’s like you don’t like the real meanings.

Bill Rausch, Richland, Washington

I understand that you as an engineer use the term critical mass and other science terms in their original senses, however, we list the most commonly used meaning first.

These are all real meanings (you meant technical meanings). I like them all. Some of my best friends are technical meanings (I’m an engineer too).

-Anu Garg

From: Eric Mills (erics web.ca)
Subject: critical mass

In many cities, a Critical Mass bicycle ride is held on the last Friday of each month. The intent is to make motorists aware of cyclists’ numbers and safety needs, and to build confidence and strength among cycling supporters.

Eric Mills, Toronto, Canada

Kabuki Queen
From: Alex McCrae (ajmccrae277 gmail.com)
Subject: broad-spectrum and critical mass

In recognition of Gay Pride Month (June), I’ve attempted to syncretize Japanese Kabuki theater with Western drag performance. Kabuki is a long-respected traditional art form where male actors assume the roles of women... essentially a form of drag. Yet shamefully, here in the US, ultra-conservative, holier-than-thou, homophobic communities are passing laws that ban the performances of drag queens, making it difficult and even dangerous for these entertainers on the LGBTQ+ rainbow spectrum to express their 1st Amendment rights or even make a living.

A Weighty Tome
When I realized that “critical mass” and “tipping point” were essentially synonymous, Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point came to mind. The question might be, would the term critical mass apply to the current state of global warming, or say, to the escalating craziness of Trump? In both cases, they might be viewed more in terms of “critical messes”.

Alex McCrae, Van Nuys, California

From: Karen Folsom (kgfols yahoo.com)
Subject: Trump’s Atomic Indictment

Trump's Atomic Indictment

Karen Folsom, Santa Barbara, California


This week’s theme: Words from science
1. Radioactive
2. Broad-spectrum
3. High-octane
4. Viral
5. Critical mass
= 1. Controversial maverick
2. Slew of choices
3. Car crash, I bet!
4. Idea which spreads
5. Minimum to get started
= 1. Hot, caustic; sarcastic remark
2. Comprehensive
3. Energetic
4. Fervid; ham most will watch
5. Do-or-die basis
= 1. Cm, Fr, Bk, Th, Ac, Es, RAI
2. Accepted
3. Is ever so strong, how alive
4. This is a social media term/word
5. Crunch time
-Josiah Winslow, Franklin, Wisconsin (winslowjosiah gmail.com) -Dharam Khalsa, Burlington, North Carolina (dharamkk2 gmail.com) -Julian Lofts, Auckland, New Zealand (jalofts xtra.co.nz)
Cm: Californium
Fr: Francium
Bk: Berkelium
Th: Thorium
Ac: Actinium
Es: Einsteinium
RAI: Radioactive Iodine

Make your own anagrams and animations.



Certain topics are, “Do Not Go There!”
Mother’s drinking -- or father’s affair.
Just one careless remark,
And you’ll glow in the dark.
They’re both radioactive, I swear.
-Tony Holmes, Launceston, UK (tony_holmes54 outlook.com)

I wonder how Trump casts his spell.
His followers think that he’s swell.
What those folks find attractive
Is radioactive --
Another four years would be hell!
-Marion Wolf, Bergenfield, New Jersey (marionewolf yahoo.com)

“My cellmate is radioactive;
With Donald please don’t hold me captive,”
Begged the prisoner. “It’s cruel
To be stuck with that fool;
The electric chair’d be more attractive.”
-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)


Little words -- “run” and “set” would be two --
Can have broad-spectrum uses. A few
Work in hundreds of ways --
The abundance dismays.
How do so many meanings accrue?
-Tony Holmes, Launceston, UK (tony_holmes54 outlook.com)

Do the dramas of Eugene O’Neill
Still have a broad-spectrum appeal?
I’m sorry to say
That people today
Prefer theater that isn’t so real.
-Rudy Landesman, New York, New York (ydur36 hotmail.com)

When I was quite terribly ill,
My doctor prescribed me a pill.
That broad-spectrum drug
Defeated my bug,
And now I must deal with the bill.
-Marion Wolf, Bergenfield, New Jersey (marionewolf yahoo.com)

“Love!” What a far-reaching word!
We use it so much it’s absurd!
People, places, delight us
Inspire and incite us --
Broad-spectrum if ever I’ve heard!
-Bindy Bitterman, Chicago, Illinois (bindy eurekaevanston.com)

Said Bill Barr, “Donald’s lies are broad-spectrum;
What he says comes straight out of his rectum.
I should know, for I’ve kissed
him down there.” What a twist!
Added Pence, “Please, Lord, don’t resurrect him.”
-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)


For a rock band, performing is all.
“On that stage, man, we’re havin’ a ball!
The adrenaline flows --
It’s high-octane at shows --
And we soar, with our audience in thrall.”
-Tony Holmes, Launceston, UK (tony_holmes54 outlook.com)

Bertolt Brecht and his partner Kurt Weill,
In their own very high-octane style,
Wrote their Threepenny show,
Called an opera, you know;
And it never has failed to beguile.
-Rudy Landesman, New York, New York (ydur36 hotmail.com)

My energy level is low.
I need some espresso to go!
This high-octane drink
Will help me, I think --
My heartbeat’s now tap-dancing, though.
-Marion Wolf, Bergenfield, New Jersey (marionewolf yahoo.com)

He likes all his cars as a rule,
Buys high-octane each time as their fuel.
Then his engine won’t knock
As he drives ‘round the block,
Which makes him appear very cool.
-Joan Perrin, Port Jefferson Station, New York (perrinjoan aol.com)

“This novel is really high-octane!
Huck Finn’s gonna sell! It’s a lock, Twain!”
said the agent, but next
sent Prince Hamlet a text:
“I regret that your play they’d all mock, Dane.”
-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)


Before Facebook and YouTube held sway,
‘Twas the gossip reached ears far away.
When the news had been heard,
Wagging tongues spread the word --
What we call going viral, today.
-Tony Holmes, Launceston, UK (tony_holmes54 outlook.com)

The “Twist” was a craze in its day.
It went viral, as now we might say.
I, too, had the knack
Of contorting my back.
Would I do it again? No! No way!
-Rudy Landesman, New York, New York (ydur36 hotmail.com)

The TikToker said, “It’s my dream
To cook up a wonderful meme --
My dance will go viral,
My viewership spiral,
And fame’s guaranteed, it would seem.”
-Marion Wolf, Bergenfield, New Jersey (marionewolf yahoo.com)

“News that’s chiseled in stone won’t go viral;
Write it down on some stuff that’s papyral,”
Said the Pharaoh. “Then find
Ways the pages to bind;
Perhaps holes and a small metal spiral.”
-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)

Critical mass

If one person tells two, they tell four,
Who in turn tell eight others -- and more.
Word gains critical mass,
Like a wildfire in grass --
Isn’t that what the internet’s for?
-Tony Holmes, Launceston, UK (tony_holmes54 outlook.com)

Her husband had tended to hoard,
A habit she simply ignored.
But at critical mass,
She could not let it pass --
She trashed all the junk he adored.
-Marion Wolf, Bergenfield, New Jersey (marionewolf yahoo.com)

Said a laddie one day to his lass,
“I believe we’ve reached critical mass.
For my climax is near,
And I’ll do you too, dear!”
But she answered, “Och aye, think I’ll pass.”
-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)


His new clock radioactive-ated an alarm to get the teenager to school on time.
-Joan Perrin, Port Jefferson Station, New York (perrinjoan aol.com)

“Turn it down! That damn radioactive-ly interferes with my peace and quiet!” the old curmudgeon shouted to the teenagers next door.
-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)

Said one mite to the other, “I bet the ex-Prez wishes he could just float away on a dust particle like we can.” Answered the other, “There’s no sufficiently broad-spectrum-p could fit on.”
-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)

Salma High-octane-ted Frida Kahlo’s reputation forever with her warts-and-all portrayal in the artist’s biopic,” wrote the reviewer.
-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)

“An evening with El-viral make you forget all your troubles,” beckoned the Mistress of the Dark.
-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)

“It’s critical Mass-achusetts be a leader for Independence, “ declared John Adams at the Continental Congress.
-Joan Perrin, Port Jefferson Station, New York (perrinjoan aol.com)

“This lousy review by that stupid critical mass-ively reduce our box office,” fretted the Broadway producer.
-Steve Benko, New York, New York (stevebenko1 gmail.com)

Maus No Mas
From: Alex McCrae (ajmccrae277 gmail.com)
Subject: Maus no mas

Missouri, the Show-Me State, has morphed into the Don’t-Show-Me State, where Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, about the horrors of the Holocaust, is about to be pulled off public school library bookshelves. The offending part is the exposure of a woman’s brεast in a bathtub scene. Missouri school districts have pulled over 300 book titles since the book-banning law was passed last year.

Alex McCrae, Van Nuys, California

Scientists do not join hands every Sunday and sing “Yes gravity is real! I know gravity is real! I will have faith! I believe in my heart that what goes up, up, up must come down, down, down. Amen!” If they did, we would think they were pretty insecure about the concept. -Dan Barker, activist, musician, and former preacher (b. 25 Jun 1949)

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