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13 Scientific Terms Even Smart People Misuse

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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.

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Environmental Pollution Is Deadlier Than Smoking, War, AIDS or Hunger, Experts Find
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In 1970, Congress pushed forward the Clean Air Act, which took aggressive steps to monitor and control pollutants in the environment via federal regulations. Over the years, people living in the United States have been exposed to considerably fewer contaminants such as lead and carbon monoxide.

But as a new study in the Lancet medical journal points out, pollution continues to be a global crisis, and one that might carry a far more devastating mortality rate than previously believed. Analyzing the complete picture of contaminated regions around the globe, study authors believe pollution killed 9 million people in 2015—more than smoking, AIDS, war, or deaths from hunger.

The study’s authors aggregated premature deaths on a global basis that were attributable to pollution, singling out certain regions that continue to struggle with high concentrations of toxic materials. In India, one in four premature deaths (2.5 million) was related to environmental contamination. In China, 1.8 million people died due to illnesses connected to poor air quality.

A lack of regulatory oversight in these areas is largely to blame. Dirty fossil fuels, crop burning, and burning garbage plague India; industrial growth in other locations often leads to pollution that isn’t being monitored or controlled. Roughly 92 percent of deaths as a result of poor environmental conditions are in low- or middle-income countries [PDF].

The study also notes that the 9 million estimate is conservative and likely to rise as new methods of connecting pollution-related illness with mortality in a given area are discovered. It’s hoped that increased awareness of the problem and highlighting the economic benefits of a healthier population (lower health care costs, for one) will encourage governments to take proactive measures.


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This Just In
Pablo Neruda's Death Wasn't Caused by Cancer, Experts Conclude
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Pablo Neruda—whose real name was Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto—died on September 23, 1973, less than two years after he was awarded the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature. The official cause of death was recorded as cancer cachexia, or wasting syndrome, from prostate cancer. But while Neruda did have cancer, new tests on his remains indicate that the left-leaning Chilean politician and poet didn’t actually succumb to the disease, according to BBC News.

It’s still unclear what, exactly, caused Neruda’s demise. But in a recent press conference, a team of 16 international experts announced that they were "100 percent convinced" that the author's death certificate "does not reflect the reality of the death,” as quoted by the BBC.

Neruda died in 1973 at the age of 69, less than two weeks after a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet ousted the Marxist government of President Salvador Allende. Neruda, a Communist, was a former diplomat and senator, and a friend of the deposed politician.

In 2011, Manuel Araya, Neruda’s chauffeur, claimed that the poet had told him that Pinochet’s men had injected poison into his stomach as he was hospitalized during his final days, Nature reports. The Communist Party of Chile filed a criminal lawsuit, and Neruda’s remains were exhumed in 2013 and later reburied in 2016, according to the BBC.

Many of Neruda’s relatives and friends were reportedly skeptical of Araya’s account, as was the Pablo Neruda Foundation, according to The New York Times. But after samples of Neruda’s remains were analyzed by forensic genetics laboratories in four nations, Chile’s government acknowledged that it was “highly probable” that his official cause of death was incorrect.

And now, the team of scientists has unanimously ruled out cachexia as having caused Neruda’s death. “There was no indication of cachexia,” said Dr. Niels Morling, a forensic medical expert from the University of Copenhagen, as quoted by The Guardian. Neruda “was an obese man at the time of death. All other circumstances in his last phase of life pointed to some kind of infection.”

The investigating team says that their analysis yielded what might be lab-cultivated bacteria, although it could have also originated from the burial site or been produced during the body's decomposition process. Test results will be available within a year, they say.

[h/t BBC News]


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