PD Smith

Shish-kebab with a spud

Times Literary Supplement, August 15, 2008

Chambers Dictionary of Science and Technology, General Editor, John Lackie (Chambers), 1376 pp. £35. ISBN: 978-0550-10071-9

By PD Smith

The Chambers Dictionary of Science and Technology is an immensely impressive and authoritative work. First published in 1940, restyled the Larousse Dictionary of Science and Technology in the 1990s, and now fully revised and updated, it contains more than 50,000 entries on over 40 subject areas, ranging from Acoustics to Veterinary Science. ChambersAlong with molecular biology, information technology is one of the major growth areas for new entries (or “headwords”) and some 2,000 have been added. General editor Dr John Lackie, a cell biologist, has also instigated some taxonomic changes. For instance, botany, zoology, biology, immunology, genetics and virology have been subsumed into one subject field: BioScience. Another new category is Psychology, which absorbs some entries previously labelled Behaviour, as well as gaining many new entries. After all, says Lackie somewhat defensively, it is “one of the most popular subjects at both school and university level”. Students of psychology will no doubt welcome entries on “penis envy”, “Oedipus complex” and “anal character”, although may be disappointed not to find one on the mirror stage. Jacques Lacan is, it seems, not quite scientific enough.

In contrast, the Oxford Dictionary of Science (fifth edition, 2005) turns up its nose even at Freudian references. You’ll find a “psychrometer” here (an instrument for measuring the humidity of the air), but no “psychology”, let alone “psychoanalysis”. So full marks to Chambers for inclusiveness. Of course, the comparison is a little unfair. The Oxford Dictionary has a mere 9,000 entries. Nevertheless, in some respects Oxford’s David is, in fact, superior to the Chambers Goliath. The former includes biographical entries on scientists such as Albert Einstein. Its entries also tend to be more fulsome, particularly as regards historical context. So whereas both dictionaries note that the radioactive element einsteinium (Es) is artificial, being created by bombardment in a cyclotron or the fiery hearts of exploding hydrogen bombs, only the Oxford Dictionary tells you who first identified it (Albert Ghiorso) and when (1952). Unfortunately, the Chambers Dictionary also seems to have got into a muddle with its isotopes, suggesting that einsteinium’s most long-lived isotope, 254Es, has “a half-life of greater than 2 years”, whereas it is about 270 days. Interestingly, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory also lists isotope 252 as having an even longer half-life of 471 days, a fact duly noted by the Wikipedia entry on einsteinium.

Minor errors aside, it is clear that the Chambers Dictionary covers a remarkably broad range of subjects. Historical context has been sacrificed in favour of succinct definitions, a no doubt essential space-saving decision for a single-volume edition which is already 7 cm thick. Certain key subjects are, however, dealt with in greater depth. These so-called “panel” entries range from half a page on “critical mass” (the minimum size of fissionable isotope which will sustain a chain reaction), to two pages on “quantum theory”. There are nearly 100 of these panels. Although there are no biographical entries, the Chambers Dictionary includes technology – everything from cutting-edge Big Brother technologies such as RFIDs (Radio-Frequency Identification Devices, minute electronic tags that can be read remotely by radio), to the cobalt bomb, an H-bomb encased in cobalt that could theoretically spread fall-out around the entire planet, and SDI (aka Star Wars), the Reagan-era plan for space-based weapons systems.

Cold war nuclear nightmares aside, some post-9/11 technologies of mass destruction are absent, such as “dirty bomb” or the more general “radiological weapon”. You’ll also search in vain for an entry on the “psilophyte”, the simplest plants with vascular tissues (included in Penguin’s Desk Encyclopedia of Science and Mathematics, 2000), or even “psilocybin”, the hallucinogenic alkaloid found in the liberty cap toadstool, identified in the 1950s. More surprisingly, there’s no entry on global warming, although there is one on the “greenhouse effect” and a panel devoted to the general topic of “climatic change”. After considering natural patterns of change, this concludes with a rather grudging comment about our impact on the climate: “There is increasing speculation at the present time whether human activity associated with rapidly increasing population, industrialization, deforestation and intensive agriculture may affect the climate on a global scale.” The conservatism of this statement is unlikely to impress eco-warriors.

Despite such quibbles, in its 1330 pages the Chambers Dictionary has more than enough fascinating information to satisfy even the most discerning technological fact-junky or scientific Gradgrind. Every page contains some intriguing new word or concept. “London-shrunk”, for instance, is not some obscure metropolitan disease, but rather a term from the woollen trade denoting a pre-shrunk item. A “nibble” in information technology has little to do with eating, aside from the fact that it refers to mouse-sized bites, or to be precise, half a byte or a group of 4 bits. Perhaps you feel like a nibbling a “Shish-kebab”? But did you know that in the realm of plastics this denotes a polymer microstructure in which lamellae (plate-like structures) form at right angles to an oriented fibril (a bundle of aligned plates), strung out along it at regular intervals like the eponymous Middle Eastern food. And while we are talking food, “spud” is not just a propitious esculent but a mining term that means to begin well-drilling operations. In short, this weighty tome is a must-have addition to the library of any science buff, fact checker, word lover, or wannabe contestant of University Challenge.