In season 2, episode 5 of that great show “The Big Bang Theory,” Penny (played by actress Kaelly Cuoco) asks Sheldon (played by actor Jim Parsons) why he didn’t get his driving license when he was 16 years old like everybody else. Sheldon, a theoretical physicist with 2 PhDs, replies that it was because he was busy “examining perturbative amplitudes in n=4 supersymmetric theories leading to a re-examination of the ultraviolet properties of multi-loop n=8 supergravity using modern twistor theory.”
Of course the Big Bang Theory is just a sitcom, but the science depicted in the program is often quite accurate and also as cryptic as real science is too. Check for example actual titles of research published in scientific journals:
-Vortex dynamics in two-dimensional Josephson junction arrays with asymmetrically bimodulated potential.
-Dopaminergic Polymorphisms Associated with Time-on-Task Declines and Fatigue in the Psychomotor Vigilance Test.
- Heavy cluster knockout reaction (16)O((12)C,2(12)C)(4)He and the nature of the (12)C-(12)C interaction potential.
-Countertransference feelings in one year of individual therapy: An evaluation of the factor structure in the Feeling Word Checklist-58
And, last but not least, check a couple of sentences from an article I published recently:
"There was a marked effect of DPD inhibition by EU on plasma 5-FU. Mean Cmax was nearly doubled (914.6 vs. 471.5 μM) and mean AUC values were increased 4.7-fold (819 vs. 174 nmol/ml x h) in animals treated with EU compared to control animals, confirming effective DPD inhibition in the model."
With respect to the example from my article above, you may argue that one of the reasons the sentences are not understandable is because I used some abbreviations. OK, fair, what if I told you that “DPD” stands for "dehydropyrimidine dehydrogenase". Is that clearer?
Regular folk are often bewildered by the apparent mumbo jumbo present in the scientific literature. Some may even wonder if all those big words are nothing more than gobbledygook employed by people who just pretend to know what they are talking about while hiding behind a wall of jargon. Why use all those complex words? Can’t scientists express themselves in a way that can be understood by mere mortals?
Scientists, scientific writers, and science bloggers such as yours truly (on all 3 counts), do try to explain the complexities of science to non-scientists. However, to understand why it’s virtually impossible to avoid creating and using the technical jargon found in the scientific literature, consider the following thought experiment. Imagine that you learn the language spoken by a tribe in a remote jungle that has had no contact with civilization. Now imagine you visit this tribe, and using only the words of their language, you try to explain to them all about computers, microwave ovens, the internet, television, CDs, DVDs, cell phones, cars, airplanes, trains, refrigerators, washing machines and so forth.
These terms are very familiar to you, but our degree of technological advance has led to the production or discovery of many entities that are not part of the immediate reality that this tribal language describes. If you incorporated these words into the tribal language and used them in front of the members of the tribe, they would think you are talking nonsense because the members of the tribe would have no real-world reference for these things.
That is the same situation with scientists as it relates to the regular language people use. The language is just insufficient to name what scientists are discovering, therefore new terms have to be invented. As scientists discover and name more things and their field of study grows in complexity, its comprehension becomes daunting for the non-specialist.
This is not to say that a few scientists may not attempt to hide their ignorance on some topics behind a wall of jargon, but when the vast majority of scientist write in the technical literature or talk with their peers, they must employ many words that are not in the common parlance. Nevertheless, in some areas these words eventually filter into the day to day reality of the common folk. Just consider words like DNA, genes, antibiotics, or vitamins. These words were once technical terms that are of common use today by non-scientists.
So to sum it up, no, it’s not mumbo jumbo, and some of these seemingly incomprehensible words that you find vexing in today’s scientific literature may end up being part of the everyday vocabulary of your children or your children’s children in the future.