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Language and Innovation: How the world has been shaped by words

Language is such an all-pervasive aspect of everyday life, yet it is often under-appreciated and taken for granted.

Robyn Arianrhod, Peter Doherty and Jane Gleeson-White all understand how important language can be. Although the subjects of their recent works vastly differ, one thing that they have in common is an understanding of how language helps to push discoveries and shape the world.

Robyn’s latest book, Seduced By Logic, tells the stories of Émilie du Châtelet and Mary Somerville, two of the most influential women in mathematics, who were both part of the unfolding Newtonian revolution in science. 

A medical researcher and Nobel Prize winner, Peter Doherty has just published Sentinel Chickens, which looks at how studying birds has furthered science, and how studying birds can give a vision of the future of humanity.

Jane Gleeson-White has recently published Double Entry, a book that follows the history of Double Entry bookkeeping, and manages to make interesting the often dry accounting profession.

“I find it fascinating,” Arianrhod, says, opening the panel, “that ideas we take for granted, like gravity, were once controversial.”

The scientific theories and discoveries of the past often faced limitations as people grappled with trying to describe their theories, especially in the midst of what was a highly religious society.

“Reason was what was needed, not talking about God.”

The development of scientific language often follows discovery,” remarks Peter Doherty, “each specialisation has its own language.”

This increasing specialisation of language does have its drawbacks however in this age of increasing inter-disciplinary cooperation in the scientific community. As Doherty laments: “I spend half my life putting the words of my young colleagues into something resembling English.”

With such an academic panel, the conversation quickly turned to the modern problems facing the world, and how this history shaped by language has a continuing effect on society.

“Maths is the language where you can say what you can’t say in any other language,” Robyn  Arianrhod says, as she explains how the language created in Newtonian physics led to Einstein’s curvature of space-time, which enabled the space program, despite only recently being measured for the first time.

As the conversation begins to touch on the current juggernaut issue of climate, the discussion kicks up a gear.

“With climate change it’s very easy to confuse people, easy to get things wrong,” Peter says. “There is a deliberate under-reporting of that which is inconvenient.” He goes on to explain that language is often used to create an alternative narrative surrounding these issues.

“Today our accounts are naturally flawed,” explains Jane Gleeson-White, “because we don’t account for the natural resources.”

Gleeson-White explains how the accounting systems we use today came about during the industrial revolution, a time when resources were believed to be unlimited.

“If we can incorporate the analysis of natural resources into our cost/benefit analyses, we can make better decisions for the future of the planet.”

As the panellists delved into the intricacies of their personal fields and how their language and ideas relate to the world, the audience was treated to an enlightening discourse about what has lead to the current world, and how it may become in the future.

Thomas Weir is a Southern Cross University media student.

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