13 Scientific Terms Even Smart People Misuse


When scientists use these words, they typically mean something completely different than what they do when non-scientists use them. Sometimes our definitions are too narrow or too broad, and sometimes, we use terms interchangeably when they actually shouldn't be. We dug deep into the American Museum of Natural History's website to help set the record straight.

1. and 2. Poisonous and venomous

Though the words poison and venom are often used interchangeably—and although they both describe a toxin that interferes with a physiological process—there is a difference. It’s all about how the substance is delivered: Venom is delivered via an anatomical device like fangs, while poison is usually inhaled, ingested, or absorbed. As Mark Siddall, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at AMNH, explains in the clip above, both the rough-skinned newt and the blue-ringed octopus produce a powerful toxin called tetrodotoxin. But scientists call the octopus venomous because it delivers the substance through a bite, and consider the newt poisonous because the toxin is in its skin.

3. Microbes

When most people hear the word “microbe,” they think of stuff that they can't see that's going to make them sick. But while some do cause disease, not all microbes, or microscopic organisms, are bad; in fact, some are essential for life. Microbes include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa, and make up most of the life on our planet. For every human cell in our bodies, there are about 10 resident microbes; only a small percentage are pathogens.

4., 5., and 6. Meteor, meteorite, and asteroid

Although some use these terms interchangeably, meteors, meteorites, and asteroids are all different things. Here’s how to use them correctly: Asteroids are the rocky bodies that orbit the Sun mostly between Mars and Jupiter; they’re much smaller than planets, and they're sometimes pulled out of their orbit by the force of Jupiter’s gravity and travel toward the inner solar system. The vast majority of meteorites—rocks that fall to Earth from space and actually reach the Earth's surface—are parts of asteroids. Like meteorites, meteors are objects that enter Earth’s atmosphere from space—but they’re typically grain-sized pieces of comet dust that burn up before reaching the ground, leaving behind trails that we call “shooting stars” as they vaporize.

7. Theory

When most people use the word theory, they're talking about a hunch or guess. But for scientists, a theory is a well-substantiated—and testable—explanation that incorporates laws, hypotheses, and facts. The theories of gravity and evolution, for example, aren’t mere hunches; they explain why apples fall from trees and how so many very different plants and animals exist, and have existed, on Earth. According to AMNH’s website, “A theory not only explains known facts; it also allows scientists to make predictions of what they should observe if a theory is true.” Scientific theories are also testable; if evidence isn’t compatible with a theory, scientists can either go back to refine the theory, or reject it altogether.

8. Fossil

As Lowell Dingus, a research associate at AMNH, explains in the video above, fossils aren’t just the remains of hard parts like bones, teeth, and shells. Under the right conditions, organisms’ soft parts—like skin impressions and outlines—can also fossilize. Other things that qualify as fossils are traces made by organisms, like footprints, burrows, and nests. Fun fact: By most definitions, in order to qualify as a fossil, the specimen must be more than 10,000 years old. If they’re younger than that, the specimens are called subfossils.

9. Common ancestor

When you use the term common ancestor, you might mean that one creature evolved from another. But that oversimplifies it: Humans didn’t evolve from monkeys, for example, but share an ape-like common ancestor with Old World monkeys. According to AMNH's website, "Overwhelming evidence shows us that all species are related—that is, that they are all descended from a common ancestor. More than 150 years ago, Darwin saw evidence of these relationships in striking anatomical similarities between diverse species, both living and extinct. Today, we realize that most such resemblances—in both physical structure and embryonic development—are expressions of shared DNA, the direct outcome of a common ancestry."

10. Hominins

Homo sapiens are the only remaining descendants of a once-varied group of primates called the Hominini. You’re probably used to using the term hominids to refer to humans and their ancestors, and not long ago, you would have been correct—but recently, the definition of that word has expanded to refer to all great apes and their ancestors. Instead, you should be using the word hominins to describe the group comprised of modern humans, extinct human species, and our immediate ancestors.

The first hominin fossil was discovered in 1856, and since then, many hominin fossils, comprising many different species, have been discovered. These species emerged in different places over the past six or seven million years, and some of them even lived simultaneously, as AMNH’s Dr. Ian Tattersall explains in the video above.

11. Dinosaurs

We typically say that all dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, but that’s not actually the case. In fact, if you look out your window, you might see one right now. Birds descended from the common ancestor of all dinosaurs, and so, "just as humans beings are a kind of primate, birds are a kind of dinosaur," Mark Norell, curator of the Division of Palentology at AMNH, explains in the video above. So go ahead: Tell your friends that pigeon is a dinosaur. They'll never look at those birds the same way again.

12. Pterosaurs

Chances are, you probably haven't been using this word much at all. That's because most of us grew up thinking that pterosaurs like the pterodactyl were dinosaurs, and that's what we called them. But these animals weren’t dinosaurs, and they weren’t birds, either. They were actually flying reptiles, cousins to the dinosaurs that evolved on a separate branch of the reptile family tree. Pterosaurs were the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight by flapping their wings to generate lift; you can find out more about pterosaurs from the video above.

13. De-extinction

You probably understand what de-extinction is, but you might not understand what kinds of animals we can bring back—and you have Hollywood to thank for that. Despite what you saw in Jurassic Park, scientists will never be able to resurrect non-avian dinosaurs from extinction; any DNA that might be found is just too old to be used. But for other species, science might find a way in the not-too-distant future. In fact, in 2003, researchers implanted a goat egg with genes from an extinct Spanish mountain goat and used a goat-ibex as a surrogate; the resulting animal lived for just a few minutes, but the experiment proved it could be done.

Scientists expect that technological breakthroughs—and genetic data gathered from specimens—will provide ways to revive recently extinct species (think passenger pigeons, and maybe even wooly mammoths). It sounds cool, but de-extinction comes with a number of thorny scientific and ethical questions, as Museum Curator Ross MacPhee explains in the video above.

This Just In
Yes, Parents Do Play Favorites—And Often Love Their Youngest Kid Best

If you have brothers or sisters, there was probably a point in your youth when you spent significant time bickering over—or at least privately obsessing over—whom Mom and Dad loved best. Was it the oldest sibling? The baby of the family? The seemingly forgotten middle kid?

As much as we'd like to believe that parents love all of their children equally, some parents do, apparently, love their youngest best, according to The Independent. A recent survey from the parenting website Mumsnet and its sister site, the grandparent-focused Gransnet, found that favoritism affects both parents and grandparents.

Out of 1185 parents and 1111 grandparents, 23 percent of parents and 42 percent of grandparents admitted to have a favorite out of their children or grandchildren. For parents, that tended to be the youngest—56 percent of those parents with a favorite said they preferred the baby of the family. Almost 40 percent of the grandparents with a favorite, meanwhile, preferred the oldest. Despite these numbers, half of the respondents thought having a favorite among their children and grandchildren is "awful," and the majority think it's damaging for that child's siblings.

Now, this isn't to say that youngest children experience blatant favoritism across all families. This wasn't a scientific study, and with only a few thousand users, the number of people with favorites is actually not as high as it might seem—23 percent is only around 272 parents, for instance. But other studies with a bit more scientific rigor have indicated that parents do usually have favorites among their children. In one study, 70 percent of fathers and 74 percent of mothers admitted to showing favoritism in their parenting. "Parents need to know that favoritism is normal," psychologist Ellen Weber Libby, who specializes in family dynamics, told The Wall Street Journal in 2017.

But youngest kids don't always feel the most loved. A 2005 study found that oldest children tended to feel like the preferred ones, and youngest children felt like their parents were biased toward their older siblings. Another study released in 2017 found that when youngest kids did feel like there was preferential treatment in their family, their relationships with their parents were more greatly affected than their older siblings, either for better (if they sensed they were the favorite) or for worse (if they sensed their siblings were). Feeling like the favorite or the lesser sibling didn't tend to affect older siblings' relationships with their parents.

However, the author of that study, Brigham Young University professor Alex Jensen, noted in a press release at the time that whether or not favoritism affects children tends to depend on how that favoritism is shown. "When parents are more loving and they're more supportive and consistent with all of the kids, the favoritism tends to not matter as much," he said, advising that “you need to treat them fairly, but not equally.” Sadly for those who don't feel like the golden child, a different study in 2016 suggests that there's not much you can do about it—mothers, at least, rarely change which child they favor most, even over the course of a lifetime.

[h/t The Independent]

15 Scientific Reasons Spring Is the Most Delightful Season

Summer, winter, and fall may have their fans, but spring is clearly the most lovable of the four seasons. Not convinced? Here are 15 scientific reasons why spring is great:


road and field on a sunny day

Spring marks the end of blistering winter and the transitional period to scorching summer. In many places, the season brings mild temperatures in the 60s and 70s. People tend to be most comfortable at temperatures of about 72°F, research shows, so the arrival of spring means you can finally ditch the heavy winter layers and still be comfortable.


sunny sky

Following the spring equinox, days begin lasting longer and nights get shorter. Daylight Saving Time, which moves the clock forward starting in March, gives you even more light hours to get things done. Those extra hours of sun can be a major mood-booster, according to some research. A 2016 study of students in counseling at Brigham Young University found that the longer the sun was up during the day, the less mental distress people experienced.


blue bird on branch

Many animals migrate south during the winter, then head north as temperatures rise. For relatively northern regions, there is no better indicator of spring than birds chirping outside your window. Their northward migration can start as early as mid-February and last into June, meaning that throughout the spring, you can expect to see a major avian influx. In addition to the satisfaction of marking species off your bird-watching checklist, seeing more of our feathered friends can make you happy. In 2017, a UK study found that the more birds people could see in their neighborhoods, the better their mental health.


Baby squirrels

Many animals reproduce in the spring, when temperatures are warmer and food is plentiful. Baby bunnies, ducklings, chipmunks, and other adorable animals abound come spring. Studies have found that seeing cute animals can have positive effects on humans. For instance, one small study in 2012 found that when college students looked at cute images of baby animals, they were better at focusing on a task in the lab. Being able to watch fluffy baby squirrels frolic outside your office window might make spring your most productive season of the year.


flowers hanging outside of a house

In 2015, a pair of public policy researchers discovered a hidden upside to "springing forward" for Daylight Saving Time. It reduced crime. When the sun set later in the evening, the study published in the Review of Economics and Statistics found, robbery rates fell. After Daylight Saving Time started in the spring, there was a 27 percent drop in robberies during that extra hour of evening sunlight, and a 7 percent drop over the course of the whole day.


child with rainbow umbrella jumping in puddle

Warmer temperatures mean you can spend more time outside without freezing your feet off, which is great for mental health. Across the seasons, research has found that taking walks in nature slows your heart rate and makes you more relaxed, but some research indicates that there is something special about spring's effect on your brain. A 2005 study from the University of Michigan linked spending 30 minutes or more outside in warm, sunny spring weather to higher mood and better memory. But the effect reverses when spring ends, since being outside in the warmest days of summer is usually pretty uncomfortable.


woman writing in a park

That same University of Michigan study found that spending time outside in the sunny spring weather isn't just a mood booster, it actually can change the way people think. The researchers found that being outdoors broadened participants' minds, leaving them more open to new information and creative thoughts.


leaves budding in spring

Spring brings green growth back to plants and trees. Depending on where you live, trees may begin sporting new leaves as early as mid-March. That successful spring leaf growth ensures a cool canopy to relax under during the hot summer—a hugely important factor in keeping cities comfortable. According to researchers, vegetation plays a big role in mitigating the urban heat island effect. When trees release water back into the air through evapotranspiration, it can cool down the areas around them by up to 9°F, according to the EPA.


tulip bulbs

It's amazing what a little sun can do for plants and grass. Through photosynthesis, plants convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into food, releasing oxygen in the process. That means as plants start to grow in the spring, they pull carbon out of the atmosphere, providing an important environmental service. Plants take in roughly 25 percent of the carbon emissions humans produce, absorbing more than 100 gigatons of carbon through photosynthesis each growing season. Because of this, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere drops each spring and summer. (Unfortunately, it rises in the winter, when most plants aren't growing.)


wooden box full of fresh produce

Many vegetables and some fruits are harvested in the spring. 'Tis the season to get your local asparagus, greens, peas, rhubarb, and other fresh produce. Getting more fruits and vegetables into your diet isn't just good for the body; it's good for the soul. A 2016 study of more than 12,000 Australians found that when people increased the amount of fruits and vegetables in their diet, they felt happier and had higher rates of life satisfaction. If they increased their intake by eight portions a day (a tall order, we know) the psychological gains were equivalent to the change in well-being people experience when they go from being unemployed to having a job, the researchers found.


Flowers in a vase

After months spent conserving energy, flowers bloom in the spring, once they sense that the days have grown longer and the weather has turned warmer. That's good for humans, because several studies have shown that looking at flowers can make you happy. A 2008 study of hospital patients found that having flowers in the room made people feel more positive and reduced their pain and anxiety [PDF]. Another study from Rutgers University found that when participants were presented with a bouquet of flowers, it resulted in what scientists call a "true smile" a full 100 percent of the time. Seeing flowers had both "immediate and long-term effects" that resulted in elevated moods for days afterward, according to the researchers [PDF].


woman tying shoes in flower field

While it's important to keep moving no matter what the weather, research shows that working out can be more beneficial if you do it outside. A 2011 study found that, compared with an indoor workout, exercising outdoors in nature increased energy levels, made people feel revitalized, and decreased tension, among other positive effects. People who worked out in the fresh air also tended to say they enjoyed the experience more and would be likely to repeat it, suggesting that using nature as your gym might help you stick with your exercise regimen. While those benefits probably extend to winter, too, it's a whole lot easier to stomach the idea of a run once the weather warms up.


dew on grass and a daisy

Flu season in the U.S. typically lasts through the fall and winter, usually peaking between December and February and tapering off during the spring. The seasonal change is in part because of dry air. Cold temperatures mean a drop in humidity, and indoor heating only makes the air drier. This lack of moisture in the air can dry out your skin and the nasal cavities, leading to nose bleeds, irritated sinuses, and a greater risk of getting sick. Since the mucus in your nose is designed to trap viruses, when it dries up, you're more likely to catch something nasty, like the flu. As the weather warms up and becomes more humid throughout the spring, that mucus comes back. As the season wears on, not only can you lay off the body lotion, but you can probably put away the tissues—if you don't have spring allergies, that is.


windows open on a red house

Temperate weather makes it easier to get the fresh air you need. Opening your windows and allowing the breeze in serves as an important way to ventilate indoor spaces, according to the EPA. A lack of ventilation can lead to an unhealthy concentration of indoor pollutants from sources like cleaning product fumes, certain furniture and building materials, and stoves (especially gas ones), posing a threat to your health and comfort. Winter brings the highest rates of indoor pollutants like nitrogen oxide, a 2016 study of unventilated stove use in homes found. Spring brings the perfect opportunity to throw open those windows and doors and get the air moving again.


woman enjoying sitting in the sun

Sunlight triggers your body to produce the vitamin D, which keeps your bones strong. At northern latitudes, it's extremely difficult to get enough sun exposure naturally to maintain healthy vitamin D levels during the winter—even if you did want to expose your skin to the elements—but that starts to change during the spring. One Spanish study found that in Valencia (which shares a latitude with Philadelphia, Denver, Baltimore, Kansas City, and several other major U.S. cities), people only need 10 minutes outside with a quarter of their bodies exposed to the spring sunshine to get an adequate daily dose of vitamin D.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.


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