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Life on Mars?

8 June 2018

NASA has announced that it has found "organic molecules" on Mars.

What does this mean?

Well it depends on how you define the word "organic".

In fact, this is a fantastic example of how imprecise and ambiguous the English language can be.

If we use a simple dictionary definition then "organic" has two meanings:

  1. relating to or derived from living matter
  2. produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals

However, from the perspective of a chemist, "organic" simply means that something involves carbon atoms and carbon-based structures.

For example, methane is an organic molecule -- from a chemist's perspective -- but it is not always derived from living matter hence it may not always qualify under the dictionary definition.

Which, I guess, leaves us all wondering what NASA really means when they claim to have found organic molecules on Mars.

One thing they do not mean is that they have found conclusive proof that life exists or existed on the red planet.

So one can only assume therefore that they are using the chemist's definition of "organic" and not the more general dictionary definition.

Isn't it amazing that we have been able to achieve so much, in terms of scientific and technical discovery and development, when we (at least in the English-speaking world) have our thumbs tied by such a clumsy language?

Does this perhaps explain why the Germans showed such fantastic technological superiority during WW2? The German language is an ugly brute of a thing (subjective) but it is precise. The Germans have a habit of simply concatenating small words to make much bigger ones? This produces extreme precision within the language... but at the cost of producing monolithic words such as:


Which (apparently) is the word for "insurance company"

There are numerous other examples, including "rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz" which is "the law for the delegation of beef labeling".

These are important terms you might want to memorise for your next visit to the fatherland!

Yet the poor old English language is littered with words that have so many meanings it often becomes impossible to understand the writer's or speaker's true intention without a lot of context.

Here's a great example of that.. in the word "set" which, according to, actually has an incredible 119 different meanings.


So there you are... I bet you thought I was going to ramble on about the true prospects of finding traces of life on Mars didn't you?


Do you think that the English language is more suited to the arts than the sciences?

What role (if any) does a language play in a nation's performance on the science and technology frontiers?

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