We commonly think about languages as arising in different nations or cultures, and serving as the basis for communication. A vocabulary of science has developed within each of the many small branches of biomedicine, chemistry, and physics; each terminology constitutes a distinctly different language. Thus, a doctoral plant scientist and a PhD astrophysicist in the same country will find it almost impossible to converse with each other about their research work because each is not able to understand the other’s terminology. This situation creates all kinds of difficulties for scientists to communicate with other researchers and scholars, and with persons in the public.
In this dispatch I first briefly discuss the role of language and terminology for science, and then I will introduce the standardized system of units used for scientific measurements. This international system is used universally amongst different languages and all the different subdivisions of modern science, thereby greatly helping to overcome difficulties for communication.
Do different tongues cause problems for communication between scientists?
Several factors fortunately make the presence of different national languages be only a minor practical impediment for communication between scientists. First, scientists in most countries have learned to read, write, and speak the English language; thus, English now is the common language for modern science. Second, the special terms in each subdivision of science usually are well-understood by scientists within different lands working on that discipline. Third, standardized units for measurements have been defined, and now are universally understood by scientists.
However, when speaking with each other, scientists in different fields of research often will find a big lack of mutual understanding. Use of English as the universal language of science helps, but problems still remain; these can be due to usage of new or very old terms, established local terms, non-standard units or symbols, etc.
Can scientists communicate readily with non-scientists?
Even when both parties use the same national language, communication by scientists with the public remains limited due to the absence of understanding by non-scientists of all the special terms of science and research. To get around this very general obstacle, scientists must give definitions of all special terms or translate those into other words or phrases that will be understood. Use of images or diagrams often helps increase understanding of science terms by the public. The task of communicating about science with non-scientists is widely recognized as being important, but any research scientist trying to do that rapidly finds that it is not so easy!
Making quantitative measurements is a major research activity by scientists!
Scientists love to make measurements! Making precise measurements is the basis of many, if not most, research experiments. There are several common units existing for measuring temperature (oC versus oF), length (inches, feet, and miles versus centimeters, meters, and kilometers), volumes (teaspoons and quarts versus milliliters and liters), etc. How does one measure different atoms, and what units of length are used (i.e., inches and centimeters are much too large!)? How is distance between our Sun and other stars measured, and what units of length are used (i.e., miles and kilometers are much too small!)? How is blood pressure measured, and what units are used? How can radioactivity in the Pacific Ocean due to the disaster at Fukushima be measured, and what units are used? How can the strength of binding of an antibody to its antigen be measured, and what units are used? What is the price per liter of gasoline in Europe, and how does that compare to the price per gallon in the US?
Adoption of a convention to standardize measurements answers such questions and greatly facilitates communication between scientists. This convention results in a uniform system of international units for measurements in science, technology, and commerce. Metrology is the study of measurements.
The International System of Units (SI) greatly aids communications [1,2]!
The International System of Units (SI) for scientific measurements [1,2] arose around the time of the French Revolution as a derivative of the Metric System for weights and measures. It now is used by all scientists and engineers, and continues to be updated and extended. Its symbols are recognized by all, its units can readily be subdivided or multiplied in a uniform simple manner, and it is good for all national languages. Modern researchers anywhere in science find the SI to be essential for their work.
The SI utilizes 7 base units of measurement: (1) the meter (m) is used to measure length, (2) the kilogram (kg) is used to measure mass, (3) the second (s) is used to measure time, (4) the ampere (A) is used to measure electric current, (5) the candela (cd) is used to measure luminous intensity, (6) the kelvin (K) is used to measure thermodynamic temperature, and (7) the mole (mol) is used to measure the amount of a substance. These base units are nicely presented at: http://physics.nist.gov/cuu/Units/current.html . This convention for base units is then utilized to define many derived units of measurement; one example is speed, which is defined in terms of the base units as length per unit time (i.e., meters per second, miles per hour, etc.). This System is self-consistent and allows SI measures to be readily converted into other units by simple formulas. This international convention of standardized units effectively solves most of the problems for communication between research scientists.
Ultimate authority for the SI is held by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, located in France. That body works with the International Committee for Weights and Measures, which coordinates many national and regional organizations. In the US, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has a primary role (see: “International Aspects of the SI” ).
Communication is a very important part of being a good research scientist! Scientists in the US benefit both from English being accepted as the universal language of science, and from the standardized International System of Units now used by scientists in all countries. These conventions are a great help for communicating research results both to other scientists and to non-scientists in the public.
 Jones, A. Z., 2016. International system of measurement. Available on the internet at: http://physics.about.com/od/toolsofthetrade/a/SIunits.htm .
 Physical Measurement Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology, 2000. “International System of Units (SI)” Available on the internet at: http://physics.nist.gov/cuu/Units/index.html .
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