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Today's Word



Jun 19, 2023
This week’s theme
Words from science

This week’s words
critical mass

Radioactive Man

Previous week’s theme
Double-duty words
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with Anu Garg

Science, the word, comes to us from Latin scire (to know). Science is a body of knowledge, a way of knowing. If we go farther back, the Latin word is from the Indo-European root skei- (to cut or split), because to know is to separate one thing from another, to discern.

Scientific knowledge is not perfect or complete. Based on the best available evidence we draw conclusions, but they are not sacred. We revise our conclusions in light of new evidence, which we are forever seeking. Contrast that with belief and faith-based systems, where we stick to what was handed down centuries ago, pretending to know everything, evidence be damned.

Science may not have all the answers, but it’s the best way to make sense of the world. The literal opposite of science is nescience (ignorance) and who wants to stay nescient?

We wouldn’t want to stay with a cell phone company if we had to pray to the CEO to let our messages go through. And certainly not if even after all the begging, the calls were connected only sometimes, no better than by random chance. Or if the big guy looked at all our messages and determined which one was OK and which one meant we were guilty of a thoughtcrime. Or, if we ever considered switching or dropping our service, he threatened eternal punishment.

We wouldn’t try to justify all this by saying the CEO’s ways are mysterious.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: What gets things done and what makes excuses. Science gets things done. This week we’ll feature five words from the world of science that are used metaphorically.

What are your thoughts? Do you work in science? Share your ideas, feelings, stories, and anecdotes below or email us at words@wordsmith.org. As always, include your location (city, state).

Stay Curie-ous! On to today’s word.



1. Involving something extremely controversial that may rub off on others.
2. Spontaneously emitting radiation, as from an unstable atomic nucleus or in a nuclear reaction.

From French radio-actif, coined by Pierre and Marie Curie, from radio-, from Latin radius (beam, ray) + actif (active), from Latin activus (active). Earliest documented use: 1898.

“We’re all constantly running social harm risk analysis -- trying to figure out how close we can get to people involved in controversy without becoming radioactive ourselves.”
Joel Stein; Gifts & Guidance; Town and Country (New York); Dec 2019.

See more usage examples of radioactive in Vocabulary.com’s dictionary.

There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who believe themselves sinners; the sinners who believe themselves righteous. -Blaise Pascal, philosopher and mathematician (19 Jun 1623-1662)

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