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In the May 2010 issue of APS News, Mano Singham suggests to avoid the word “seminal” due to its alleged obscene connotation. Please notice that the chief meaning of the Latin word “semen,” from which “seminal” is derived, is “seed.” The word “seminarium,” which in English became “seminary” and “seminar,” originally denoted a plant nursery. Not that obscene, I think! Should these words be banned, as well?
Mano Singham raises the question “Is ‘Seminal’ Sexist?” in a letter in the May 2010 issue. Alas there are many English words derived from pre-scientific beliefs or superstitions. “Testify” is another, arising from the early practice of swearing oaths while grasping one’s (male) sexual organs–see, e.g, Joseph T. Shipley, The origins of English words, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1984, pg. 416. Doubtless a lexicographer could cite many more instances. While there are words and phrases patently derived from truly offensive racial and ethnic slurs, which should indeed be avoided, banishing neutral words that happen to have origins associated with a particular sex would impoverish the language. That way lies madness.
It is doubtful whether “seminal” is a sexist term. There is no reason why the innovative work of a physicist who is a woman cannot be called “seminal”. But if “seminal” is sexist, then so are the words “matter” and “material”, as they derive from the Latin word mater (mother); and it is high time to start using non-sexist terms such as “condensed substance physics” and “antisubstance”.
In May, 2010 issue of APS News, Mano Singham suggests that the word “seminal” should be retired, “except for use in its narrow, technical sense.” I am at a loss to understand why anyone with access to a dictionary (and perhaps a little knowledge of Latin) would consider this a sexist word. Its “narrow, technical sense” (I assume he is referring to the medical term) is completely independent of its meaning as applied to research and writings. The two meanings are related only by having a common Latin root, which means “seed,” but also “cause,” or “origin.” English has many examples of such words with two or more dissimilar and independent meanings. As for replacing it with other words, none of the words that Singham lists have the meaning that my dictionary gives of “containing the seeds for later developments.” We should not impoverish the English language by removing words whose only offense is similarity to other words from a different context.
Robert K. Moniot
New York, NY
Burton Richter’s interview in the June issue of APS News offers encouragingly moderate recommendations for mitigation of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), while calling attention to the important issues of technological realism and economic feasibility. However, the current IPCC consensus projections and associated estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) act to discourage attention to Richter’s issues of practicality and acceptance of his moderate proposals, by presenting a probability distribution of projected warming having a sharp lower cutoff and an alarmingly long upper tail, and by assigning high confidence to this distribution. Those inclined towards moderation should consider the detailed depiction and derivation of this distribution (Reference 1, Pages 720 and 798-799), wherein visibly divergent model-based probability distribution function (PDF) estimates are treated as a composite, thereby disregarding the negative model validity implications of conflicting projections and creating a picture skewed towards alarm. A careful reading of Reference 1 discloses several caveats that should imply lessened confidence in current climate models, such as this statement on Page 608: “Consequently, for models to predict future climatic conditions reliably, they must simulate the current climatic state with some as yet unknown degree of fidelity.” Recently published work suggest the need to modify IPCC projections towards support of greater moderation by reporting low measurement-based ECS values 2, a significant decadal period climate forcing that is not included in current IPCC models3, and evidence of a celestial origin for many important climate oscillations 4.
Robert E. Levine,
Sierra Vista, AZ
1 S. Solomon et al. Eds, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK (2007).
2 R. Lindzen and Y. Choi, Geophysical Research Letters 36, L16705,
3 S. Solomon et al, Science 337, 1219 (2010).
4 N. Scafetta, Empirical evidence for a celestial origin of the climate oscillations and its implications, Jour. Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Phys (2010), in press.
As one who objected to aspects of the 2007 APS “National Policy” climate-change declaration, its recent so-called “Commentary” is welcome.
Your headlined news coverage emphasizes the procedural and rescripting process, but it glosses over substance, particularly POPA’s concessions and clarifications. For those who wade through and compare the original APS policy with its “Addendum,” please note two notable and critical modifiers, not previously stated, but now exhibited more than once:
The Commentary directly makes note of “uncertainties,” “uncertainty in the estimates,” “uncertainty in net effect,” “probability distributions,” and other qualifying terms that physicists experienced in scientific methodology find to be de rigueur, yet entirely omitted from the original APS statement.
The addendum stipulates that data found in the (IPCC) climate-change formulation is “relative to its pre-industrial value” and “relative to their pre-industrial values.” This is an indirect, albeit belated admission that radiative-forcing data in the 2007 IPCC report were normalized to the year 1750. Lacking definitive measurements prior to the industrial revolution, the IPCC did as well as it could in normalizing data. One problem is that IPCC data adjustment was understated. Another problem is that global temperatures in 1750 were comparatively low, thus rendering subsequent values markedly higher.
While there is considerable and demonstrable statistical confidence that aggregate contemporary global warming has occurred (at least before the 21st century), there is much less proven causative connection with historic human activity and even less demonstration of statistically confident cost-effective remedial action. In light of worldwide economic demands, societal needs should be addressed, in my opinion, on the basis of more substantive science.
It's not a matter of whether climate change is occurring, or whether humans are responsible: It’s a matter of providing a scientifically justifiable current assessment couched in probabilistic terms.
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