Mar 14, 2009

Posted by in Talk Like a Physicist Day | 4 Comments

How to talk like a Physicist : Talk Like a Physicist Day march 14, 2009



How do I talk like a Physicist, a primer


Here are some terms that Physicists use:

Order of Magnitude: Use terms like “orders of magnitude” to describe significant differences of scale.

Negligible: When something is small, say it is “negligible” non-zero, but negligible.

Infinitesimal: If it is really really small, say it is infinitesimal.

Non-trivial: For a physicist, nothing is ever hard or difficult – it is always “non-trivial”

First-order approximation : That is only a first-order approximation to a good cup of coffee… “The living room is clean. Well…at least to a first order approximation.”

Canonical: Use “canonical” when you mean “usual” or “standard.” As in, “the canonical example of talking like a physicist is to use the word ‘canonical.’”

Orthogonal: Use “orthogonal” to refer to things that are mutually-exclusive or can’t coincide. “We keep playing phone tag — I think our schedules must be orthogonal”

Empirical Data: Any actual personal experience becomes “empirical data.” i.e. a burn on your hand is empirical data that the stove is hot.

Ground State: You’re not being lazy, you are in your ground state.

Extrapolation: A semi-educated guess is an extrapolation

Ideal Case: You aren’t ignoring details, you are taking the ideal case

Vanishingly small: A tiny amount is “vanishingly small” or “negligible.” Really small is “infinitesimal”

Potential Well: Stuck in a meeting is “trapped in a potential well,” though you hope you can “tunnel out.”

Blackhole: If there is no escape, you are trapped by a black hole, from which there is no escape.

Photons: It’s not light, they are photons. Turning on the lamp becomes emitting photons.

Exercise to Reader: The rest is history becomes “the rest is left as an exercise to the reader…”

Not even wrong. Someone is making an argument using assumptions that are known to be wrong, or are making an argument that can’t be falsified. Courtesy Wolfgang Pauli. “Wait, he’s assuming Ron Paul can still win the Republican nomination? That’s not even wrong.”

For very small values of. This one, I’m afraid, I can best explain by example. “So there are four of us going to dinner.” “Three.” “Okay, so there are four of us for very small values of four.”

Super position: If something seems to act like something else, I say that it’s in a “superposition of the two states”.
Other good words to add to your vocabulary:

Positive and negative work
God Particle
Dark Energy
Space-time continuum

Other rules:
When you are asked a question, think of improbable ways a statement could be true and then at the end make sure to give correct answer.
When a mere mortal is asked a question “Can a pig fly?” typically the answerer is “No.”
However a physicist will respond as follows:
“They could if there was no gravity, or in interstellar space, or if they had wings, or if they were dropped off a cliff (though it would be a short flight). Generally the answer is NO.”
Here is another example of the same rule:
Q: two trains are a approaching each other at 40 mph and are 8 miles apart, when will they cross each other? An untrained person would say “in about 6 minutes”.
A physicist would respond as:
If the trains are on the same track, they will not cross each other but run in to each other; when you say approaching each other, are the trains engines facing each other? they could go around the world and then cross each other, but for that I need to know the location of the trains. Also, I need to know the lengths of each of the trains to accurately calculate this, but in a trivially simple situation, the trains will cross each other in 6 minutes.
Again, make sure that the correct answer is always present at the end.

Thanks to Sean, JerseyBoy, Swans on tea, dr. Dev. Stephan at Live granades, James Cronen and many others who have commented on various blogs on this issue.

Please check out the FAQ for additional information.


Talk Like a Physicist

  1. the definition for “orthogonal” isn’t quite right. I would say it’s more like two things are that don’t depend one with the other.

  2. Mst of the dictionary is realistic, but…
    few self respecting physicist would ever use the words “God Particle”. That’s not science, it’s just a good publicity stunt to get the attention of newspapers.
    and the “other rules” are not even funny, we like to think out of the box, not just being pedantic (as in your examples)



  3. David Berman says:

    How about the word, “modulo” meaning “provided” or “up to” well sort of.
    For example:
    “Are you coming out on Saturday night?”
    “Yes modulo the car being fixed”.
    “How are you?”
    “Fine, modulo the cast on my leg”

    It does make sense when you know modular arithmetic.
    Gosh this is so geeky.

  4. “more optimal”.
    “I think I found a more optimal solution for this problem”.


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