The Language of Science

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the natural history museum at the Institute Scientifique. I visited Dr. Nadia Mhammd, a geophysicist who studies sediment dynamics in coastal rivers. She invited me over to meet with her students and staff, examine some survey lines and look at sediment cores. There are few things in world I like more than a good sediment core, and so I jumped on the opportunity to visit.

I do love a good sediment core

But before we started talking serious science, Nadia have me a tour of the Institut’s small natural history museum. This museum visit, and the shop-talk thereafter gave me some time to think about how one does science in a different country, while speaking a different language.

Though the museum’s labels were in French, the overall layout of the museum was very similar to what I would expect in an American museum. Earth has been organized into standards laid out by the disciplines of biology, geology, chemistry and physics. Animals skins and shells are displayed according to evolutionary relationships. The vertebrates were all together, and within the vertebrate hall, the mammals are clumped together, and within that, the cats are clumped separately from the dogs. In the world of the birds, the hawks and eagles were displayed next to each other, but separate from the owls. The fossils on display were marked with both evolutionary relationships and their geological age.

I’ve noticed the universality of science before. A few years back I was at a conference in Japan. I could follow the talks in Japanese because the scientists used chemical symbols that are universal across the world. Every scientist knows that S is for sulfur, a km is a kilometer (and a mile is 1.6 km), a kg is a kilogram (and a pound is 2.2 kg), and a second is a second. Even though I can’t read a lick of German, I know that Einstein described his theory of relativity using the symbols E = mc2, and I know what those symbols mean.

Nadia (back) and Rajae (front) – my hosts at the Institut Scientifique

This is an important part of science. Generations of scientists have tried hard to explain the world in an objective language. Living things can be classified by their evolutionary lineage, which can be quantified using DNA. Earth’s history can be divided into time periods with ages that can be determined using radioactively decaying atoms. When Nadia showed me her lab’s sediment cores, I knew how make sense of the lists of chemical elements, and symbols because they were written in the language of science. And when I put a small bit of the sediment in between my teeth to see if I could taste the silts- common field technique we teach our students in Louisiana, Nadia laughed because she does this same thing too.  

But the language of science isn’t as universal as I’d like it to be, and I’ve gotten a better sense of language complexities working here in Morocco.  While French is the dominant language used in government higher education, most people speak Moroccan Arabic (often called Dareeja) or Amazigh (often, but incorrectly, called Berber) at home. While Moroccan schools have great professors and students, they don’t always have the best equipment. Faculty who want access to better equipment and better resources often connect to universities in Europe, and particularly France- a product of Morocco’s colonial past. If you want to work in France, it helps to speak French. (I should say, speaking your host’s language isn’t limited to the French. When planning my academic year, I told my boss that I would bring a lot of LUMCON-branded, “schwag” because I know the language he speaks.)

Arthropods on Display.

During my next visit to the Institut Scientifique I had lunch with Nadia’s graduate student Rajae. She told me that she recently been to a conference on mangroves in Thailand, and it sounded like a wonderful enriching experience. The trip was paid for by Francophonie, the Paris-based international organization that promotes French language and culture. She told me she was given this travel funding, in part, because she scored well on her French tests.

I realized that an aspiring scientist in Morocco could find have to navigate 5 or more languages as part of their training. You could find yourself talking Moroccan Arabic- Dareeja at home, while seeing its formal cousin- Fusha- modern standard Arabic, in newspapers and on TV, and in some professional settings. You might need to know French to succeed at a university in Morocco, but you will also need to know English, because most scientific papers are written in English.  Depending on where you are from in Morocco, you may also need a Amazigh dialect. And then you’ll still need to learn the Greek alphabet because scientific equations are often written with Greek symbols, and you’ll have to pick-up a little Latin- like between in vitro, and in vivo, and in situ.   

The atomic composition of quartz is the same in all languages.

In the US, I conduct science in the same language that I watch TV shows and movies in. It’s the same language that I get the news in, the same language I use to talk to my friends, and the same language I read fiction in. Growing up, one of the things that attracted me to the environmental sciences was I could relate to this world even though I wasn’t good at languages (domestic and foreign).  I’m getting better at foreign languages these days, but its fair to say that if my science education in college or high school was connected to my foreign language abilities, I wouldn’t be a scientist today. More recently, my career as an academic is tied to my ability to publish, and I’m incredibly lucky that my professional publications are in written and read in the language I am most comfortable in.

I went over the Institut Scientifique prepared to learn more about sediment, and how it moves through Morocco’s rivers and estuaries. But in addition to a lesson on coastal geophysics, I also went away with a richer understanding of history, geography, and the location in this planet that I come from.

The Bouregreg Estuary, where these sediment cores come from.

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