Posted by: Jill | October 13, 2011

Science as a Second Language

More exciting research is on the horizon for me, but these days I am spending a lot of time at my desk, reading and writing. During my first year at Scripps, I wrote about how I had to teach Microsoft how to speak science. There are some words that I use all the time when I talk about marine biology but are absent from Word’s dictionary. While it is easy to “teach” Microsoft how to speak science by adding to the dictionary, it just underscores how scientists can be speaking English but saying something completely different.

Today, Word and I had an intermediate lesson in science language. I added these words to the dictionary:

  • scleractinian, meaning hard corals that grow a skeleton and build reefs. When we talk about coral, we are usually talking about scleractinians.
  • symbiont, meaning an animal that is actually two different species that share one body in a mutually beneficial living situation.

A symbiont sounds like science fiction, right? Many organisms (including people!) have bacteria living inside them, and the bacteria do things like turn food into energy. Without bacteria in our guts, we would not be able to digest food. Corals are super-symbionts (I just made up that word): a “coral” is made up of the coral animal, an algae called zooxanthellae, and bacteria. Each organism contributes something so that the whole group can survive together; we call that the coral-algal symbiont.

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