Non-Fiction Reviews

The Oxford Dictionary of Science

7th edition

(2017) Oxford University Press, 12.99 / US$17.95, trdpbk, vii + 1006pp, ISBN 978-0-198-73837-4


All those with an avid interest in science have a science dictionary, and every professional scientist has several. Indeed student and professional scientists need both a good general science dictionary and also a number of specialist ones relating to the area(s) of their focus.

Now, this may seem a little surprising in the age of the internet when all that needs be done is to key into your search engine the word 'define' and whatever it is you want to look up, but actually there are differences in definitions and spellings, so it is important to ascertain what is what and the agreed convention if misunderstandings are to be avoided: is it 'foetal' or 'fetal'? Also, much internet content is not peer-reviewed and its provenance difficult to ascertain.

OK, so I do know a few (a tiny minority) of scientists some even quite senior who seem to be oblivious of nomenclature nuances and indeed definitions.  I recall one senior scientist (complete with numerous academic honorifics and some civil ones too) who for a while in retirement was for a short spell the editor of a house journal, bemoan in that journal's editorial of the nonsensicality of the term 'sustainability' as so many things were sustainable including death. As a point of pedantry there was technically something in what he said but following the 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development (or for that matter the 1987 Brundtland Report) sustainability has not only become to have an agreed definition but it is enshrined in international convention.  That individual also once had a little rant in a science committee I was attending over the term 'biome' which he thought was synonymous with the term 'ecosystem': in reality one is an assemblage of a number of others; a temperate oak/ash biome contains not just oak and ash trees, but freshwater streams, rivers, ponds and lakes, each of which are ecosystems but together form a distinctive biome. Biomes represent ecology at the landscape level and are usually determined by bioclimatic zones and/or its dominant/majority species.

The simple fact of life is that science is advancing and the world is getting more technological and complex so those not knowing what terms mean and those if they do not and are not prepared to go and look up their definition are going to be at a disadvantage. Yes, life is easier in that we can now sequence a genome for a small fraction of the cost of that just one and a half decades ago, and we each have computer access to programs that can do our statistics and plot graphs for us on our home PCs that three decades ago would have been a fantasy for all but the most wealthy. But the corollary is that there is more ground to cover. Knowing the meaning of technical terms is as important no, more important than it has been before!

I myself rely on a very well-thumbed 1988 edition of The Chambers Science and Technology Dictionary first published in 1940. Indeed, because the march of science is on-going it is important to get a new up-to-date general dictionary every so often lest one not be able to ascertain new terms.  And, as an environmental scientist with an interest in human ecology, the Earth system and biosphere, I also have specialist dictionaries on the environment, biology, botany (admittedly rarely used), geology, physics and (because of my arts genre dabblings) speculative fiction (coincidentally also published by OUP and an absolute must have to this site's regulars).

And so we come to the Oxford Dictionary of Science. The first point of which to note is that though over a thousand pages, it is only a fairly standard paperback size: it is not even the size of a trade paperback. To my mind it should really be called the Oxford Science Concise Dictionary and indeed it was first published back in 1984 as the Concise Science Dictionary with his 2017 edition being its seventh: yet, I do feel that Oxford University Press should have kept the word 'concise' somewhere in the mix.

And as for the aforementioned terms 'biome' and 'sustainability' both are soundly covered (albeit the latter through an entry on 'sustainable') by the Oxford Dictionary of Science.

The dictionary's good points include that the alphabetical sections 'A'. 'B'. 'C', etc., are denoted by the relevant symbol printed as a bleed (technical term for print running to the edge of the page) so you can see looking sideways on where sections lie.  It also innovatively has a score or so of mini-articles scattered throughout the book on key topics from 'Atomic Theory Chronology' to 'Vitamins Chronology'. And then there is the 'see web links' symbol which leads readers to an online supplement. It also has a useful range of appendices (always welcome) that includes pages on SI Units (handy if you don't have the invaluable D. N. Baron's thorough Units, Symbols, and Abbreviations nearby), the Solar System, a Geological time scale (always useful and this one is up-to-date and uses English spellings ('Archaean' not Americanised spelling 'Archean' I personally welcome that). It also passes most of my dictionary test terms: 'fetal' is 'fetal' not 'foetal' albeit only by implication as the latter is listed but directed to the former. (If you are confused by this last then this is a Latin versus Greek root thing as there is a difference between 'small' [which relates to 'fetal'] and 'smelly' [foetid].)

The previous edition to this was published in 2010 and some new terms are included. The OUP publicity sheet for this edition cites these as including: bone morphogenetic protein, The Convention on Biological Diversity (a late entry as I'd have thought that'd have been included in the book's third edition), PhyloCode, and Quarkonium (this last was new on me).

Now, normally in dictionary reviews I do not flag up omissions, and while this book passed all but one of my dictionary tests, I did notice that it omitted the term 'CRISPR-Cas9'. I mention this so that OUP can flag this up for inclusion in the next dictionary. True, CRISPR burst on to the biological scene only the past half decade, but since then millions of pounds worth of biogenetic research uses, and thousands of peer reviewed papers include, the term CRISPR. I can't envision any biology undergraduate degree course not having at least one lecture on CRISPR and related technologies (such as 'zinc finger probes', though that's a bit passé these days). But on the whole Oxford Dictionary of Science does a sound job of covering the science bases. While personally I'd go for a larger science dictionary (but then I am long in the tooth and am not that cash constrained) the Oxford Dictionary of Science is well suited for science undergraduates. My advice to school leavers (and their parents kitting them out) is to get the Oxford Dictionary of Science as a generic catch-all along with a more specialised dictionary (of biology, physics, etc) that relates to your course (OUP does a number of those too with a similar format style). A generic science dictionary is well worth the money and this concise version is affordable as a considerable amount of interesting topics are found along the fertile borders between disciplines. Further, not being able to see one's own specialist subject within a broader context does lead to myopia and to not realising where much of one's work's added value lies. So I heartily recommend this for school leavers going on to study science at university and new undergraduate students.

Jonathan Cowie

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