Aardvark Daily

New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

Content copyright © 1995 - 2018 to Bruce Simpson (aka Aardvark), the logo was kindly created for Aardvark Daily by the folks at

Please visit the sponsor!
Please visit the sponsor!

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?

Please visit the sponsor!
Please visit the sponsor!

Have your say in the Aardvark Forums.

PERMALINK to this column

Rank This Aardvark Page


Change Font

Sci-Tech headlines



Beware The Alternative Energy Scammers

The Great "Run Your Car On Water" Scam


Recent Columns

Over-regulation proven?
Pay attention, there will be an exam at the end of class today!...

Another get out of jail free card?
Nicky Hager has quite rightly received an award of "substantial damages" against police for the "unlawful" raid on his home back in October 2014...

Ah... symptomatic relief!
Yesterday I felt like crap. Runny nose, headache, coughing fits -- you name it, I was "enjoying" its effects...

Vaccinations... bah!
Some weeks ago I got my annual flu vaccine...

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

A tale of two tech stories
What do you do when you're sure you have a brilliant technology-based idea and want to turn it into a successful commercial product?...

When we don't need oil
"Big Oil" is the subject of many conspiracy stories...

The sound of silence
I dipped into the archive of very old New Zealand publications again over the weekend and noticed something very interesting...

UFB, routers and internet banking
Welcome to the first day of winter... unless you're one of those who believe that winter doesn't truly start until the solstice...

Up to our eyeballs in recycling?
Recycling has become a way of life for most Kiwis...

It's been a while... another drone rant
It's been a while since I had a bit of a rant about drones and drone regulations...