Perception is reality: why having a singular naming system in chemistry is essential

Ok, before I begin, I’m about to veer off topic pretty hard so stay with me here. Today, the wildly accepted language to be considered a « lingua franca » is English. So what is a « lingua franca »? Lingua franca means, in its proper sense, a language that is used between speakers whose native languages are different. This allows communication between different populations without the need of a translator, both parties understand the language and thus can communicate. To put it in simpler terms, a lingua franca is basically a bridge language, a language used when wanting to conduct business or create relationships between people who don’t have the same native tongue. A great example is English, a language so important that countries around the world teach it even when inhabiting a country where it is not needed. Now how does any of this apply to naming compounds and writing formulas in chemistry?

« Talking in Languages 2.0 » by zinjixmaggir is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I’ve been slowly building up to this moment so my point makes more sense: naming systems in chemistry is the same principle as a « lingua franca ». If we were to use different naming systems and employ different conventions when writing our formulas, how could other chemists be expected to fully understand? This is comparable to 2 people from different regions using their native tongues to communicate instead of a « lingua franca ». The fact of the matter is, in both cases, no one ends up fully comprehending the ideas of the other. In politics, this can lead to conflict, war or an atomic bombardment. In chemistry however, the impact can be far more dangerous… (Not really but you get the point)

The Story of Johnson

Let me give you a practical example, an example that while very stupid, perfectly explains the potential risks I spoke of. Imagine we have our chemist named Johnson, Johnson decides to collaborate with these Russian scientists to create a chemical to kill God or something (the actual purpose doesn’t really matter). So he flies over and they start working, the Russian scientists seem very optimistic and feel as if they are about to make a breakthrough. Johnson on the other hand, even having worked with chemicals his whole life, can’t seem to wrap his head around any of their formulas and finds himself very confused. One day, the Russian scientists find themselves forced to attend a session in court, someone didn’t seem to like their idea of killing God. They give Johnson a very simple task on a piece of paper, just make some CO₂, however they had been using a different method to write their chemical formulas all along (explaining why Johnson was confused). Instead of using a subscript number (the small 2) to show the amount of each element, the Russians instead decided to underline the element depending on the necessary amount. Johnson doesn’t see CO₂, he sees CO͇. This simple miscommunication confuses Johnson, he doesn’t understand what the double underline means and thus ignores it, that small exchange leads to Johnson realizing too late that he’s been making Carbon Monoxide! Carbon Monoxide, being as dangerous as it is, kills him. None of this would have happened had they all used the same naming system, spoke the same language…

« Carbon Monoxide » by Consumers Energy is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

While a story that unfolds exactly like that is very unlikely in the first place, the probability of an accident due to having different naming systems isn’t. Precision matters in chemistry and small variations can have an immense impact on results. The point of Nomenclature is: « to ensure that a spoken or written chemical name leaves no ambiguity concerning which chemical compound the name refers to… ». That ambiguity is exactly the risk we end up assuming the second we all start using differing systems. For the ease of comprehension for all, let’s take a pledge to collectively use just 1 system, let’s start speaking the same language.

Source(s)

Sangol Mufwene, Salikoko. “Lingua Franca.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/lingua-franca.

“3.5: Importance of Nomenclature.” Chemistry LibreTexts, Libretexts, 20 Aug. 2020, chem.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/General_Chemistry/Map%3A_General_Chemistry_(Petrucci_et_al.)/03%3A_Chemical_Compounds/3.5%3A_Importance_of_Nomenclature.

3 réflexions au sujet de “Perception is reality: why having a singular naming system in chemistry is essential”

  1. Hi Omar, I enjoyed reading your post. You made it very clear why we need a « lingua franca » in chemistry. Chemists not understanding each other can be dangerous, and a unifrom naming system is necessary if we want to avoid miscommunications.

    I don’t see any real problems with what you wrote. It was well written and presented effectively. But maybe come up with a more realistic example next time? I can’t imagine a chemist being completely oblivious to the fact he’s making carbon monoxide, and then accidently killing himself.

  2. Yo Chou,
    I just wanted to start off this comment by mentioning that I loved the way you included the subject of lingua franca with topic in question, I think it was something really creative and well thought of. Though I have to say, the same does not apply to the story of Johnson, I’ll be completely honest with you here. That was the worst part of your blog, while I do appreciate the fact that you took the time to come up with this story and parallel it to how it would apply to a real life situation, I feel like you went way too deep into a story that isn’t even real, you put way too many specifications that were just purely useless and just felt like a waste of space considering this is a blog, not a book. I don’t think that many elements of the made up story were useful such as the reasoning behind Johnson’s motives or the whole Russians going to court??? I understood how the story worked and its message and I have to say, its good don’t get me wrong, but many of its elements could have been minimized or shortened to make this blog better. In the end, your blog was pretty good all things considered.
    But I do have to ask, when you say « let’s take a pledge to collectively use just 1 system, let’s start speaking the same language ». I’m more than certain that you mean the same language as in the same nomenclature for chemistry and since I’ve already asked the question of how would you think this would be possible, ill ask you another question. With the quote I have pulled, would you think this would also apply to languages? By that, I’m asking you, do you think that there would be a cultural backlash if this type of pledge were to be taken in real life?

    1. Hey Douni,

      I understand most of the points you are trying to make. Johnson’s story was on the long side and could have been condensed. A few issues you had however, were kinda (only a little) missing the point. The goal of the experiment in my example was irrelevant (as I explained in the story). The Russians having to leave and go to court was a means to force the character of Johnson to interact with a chemical formula he dosen’t understand without the other chemists to give him context. The reason for them going to court and not being there dosen’t matter or impact the message at all. I should have been more clear, we both agree on that. But, getting hanged up on the details meant you were not interacting with the story as intended in the first place. For your second question concerning language, the context in which I put that quote changes its significance. We can’t all speak 1 language and erase all other forms of communication. So many words are deeply rooted in culture, thus, a part of that culture is lost forever without language. To ensure the safe keeping of stories and cultures we can’t all speak only 1 language. In the context of the blog however, I can’t speak italian and expect you to understand, you can’t speak chinese and expect me to respond in a way that makes sense. In the real world, when we are being objective, a lingua franca is indispensable. I’m not saying we should have 1 language to rule them all, but we do need at least 1 form of communication all parties can understand and properly employ.

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