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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Most Abused Catchphrases In Science

Today we count down to the most abused catchphrase in the history of science!

4. Survival Of The Fittest

Misattributed to: Charles Darwin
Actually coined by: Herbert Spencer

The phrase "survival of the fittest" has a negative reputation, because it has been used in the past as an excuse for eugenics, racism, and genocide.

However, to Darwin, having "fitness" is not about having huge muscles or looking like the perfect Aryan Superman. It is about being well adapted to your environment, and surviving long enough to make babies. This is why fish that can't see and birds that can't fly are still considered very "fit".

Herbert Spencer, who was trying to link social evolution with biological evolution, invented this phrase. He was thinking more along the lines of Lamarckian selection, rather than natural selection. But even Spencer did not intend the phrase to mean a struggle for survival between human beings, he was more concerned about the influence of the environment.

Unfortunately, because it is short, sharp and provocative, "survival of the fittest" has been associated with biological evolution ever since.

3. Everything Is Relative

Misattributed to: Albert Einstein
Actually coined by: ?

Where this phrase comes from is a mystery, since Einstein himself never said anything remotely like it. In his Special Relativity, he proposed that an observer travelling at a fixed speed will always measure the speed of light to be the same, not matter how fast or which direction she travels.

His bizarre idea shattered the common view at that time that there are absolute frames of reference and that time flows the same for everyone.

But not "everything" is relative. For example, the speed of light is absolute - it doesn't change no matter what your relative motion is.

Whatever its origin, the "everything is relative" quote has been used to support all sorts of ideas outside of physics such as moral relativism, spiritualism and New Age mysticism.

If it came from Einstein's mouth, why, it must be true!

This shows that even 101 years after the publication of Special Relativity, in the minds of ordinary people, Einstein's brand name still far exceeds the substance of his discoveries.

2. A Quantum Leap

Misattributed to: Physicists
Actually coined by: Poets and Journalists

In the early 20th century, physicists realized that one of the assumptions of "classical" physics - that you can measure any physical characteristic with infinite precision - is wrong. No matter how good your instruments become, very tiny quantities come in fixed "steps". There is simply no in-between values.

A photon is a fixed packet of energy, no more and no less. Electrons move between fixed energy levels. It is not a smooth range of values.

Thus, physicists invented the term "quantum jump" to describe the absolute smallest change in a physical value.

Unfortunately, this was transformed by journalists into the catchphrase "quantum leap" which describes huge advancements in science or technology.

The exact opposite meaning of what the physicists intended.

Even so, this phrase is so popular today that even scientists use it often to emphasize big improvements.

I think this suggests that people simply prefer to worship very big things rather than very small things. This is why it took us so long to realize that tiny things like bacteria and viruses can kill people so effectively.

1. The Big Bang

Misattributed to: Georges Lemaitre
Actually coined by: Fred Hoyle

Now for the Number One most abused catchphrase in science - "The Big Bang". The inflationary model of the Universe was conceptualized by Georges Lemaitre, but in a cruel twist of fate, it was his opponent Fred Hoyle who came up with the popular name for it. He called it the "Big Bang" model just to make fun of it.

And it stuck. It was another short, sharp and provocative phrase.

Unlike "survival of the fittest", "The Big Bang" actually describes the inflationary model quite well. So why is it the most abused catchphrase in science?

Because Bang in American urban-speak means rough sex.

You have no idea how many puns have been made on this play of words.

Man, that is so wrong.


Jeremy Barker said...

That was a great post! Part science, part culture and all interesting. You may be interested in a Canadian science show called Quirks & Quarks ( that talks about a lot of similar topics. Keep up the good work.

RichM said...

You said it so well. The one on relativity was perfectly on the mark. It would be a service to mankind if some science education outlet with a large circulation were to print this.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Wow you guys are so encouraging! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

hi, nice blog,
just an note, speed of light is not absolute, it can be changed, lab exp did it (both directions) so this can happen also somewhere in the universe, Einstein needed speed of light to be absolute to make the theory works

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Anon 11:08,

The speed of light in a vaccuum can be changed? Do you have a link for that?

depression~is~incurable said...

The speed of light in vacuum cannot be changed, but the speed of light can be reduced to a few feet per second in a special state of matter called Bose-Einstein Condensate.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Welcome to Fresh Brainz, and thanks for the science factoid!