14 August 2009

Science Jabberwocky

Twas brillig and the slithy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves
and the mome raths, outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

... The start of Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. No, I'm not going to try to persuade you that there are some deep underlying scientific meanings behind it.

Rather, it provides some suggestions on how to read science in areas that you're not familiar with. I have to confess that in areas outside mine, there seems to be a terrible array of words no more obvious than 'brillig' and 'slithy'. And words that look familiar, like 'gyre and gimble', but which don't look like they are supposed to mean what I'm used to them meaning.

Still, even with most of the words being unfamiliar, we can read this can know quite a lot. That's part, after all, of what makes Jabberwocky readable at all. So, let's take line by line, work our way through, and see what we can extract even from intentional nonsense.

1) Twas brillig and the slithy toves
a) Brillig probably means something about the weather. We might expect 'twas sunny' (or cloudy, etc.) in a poetic start.
b) toves are things that can be slithy. We don't know what either of the terms is, but we can get that far. Probably there are also non-slithy toves. Poetry doesn't follow the rules of scientific writing, but usually you won't see a modifier (slithy) unless it's possible for the thing to not be that way.

2) did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
a) normally gyre and gimble would mean something about spinning. A gyre is a rotating mass of fluid, a gimble is a sort of bearing that permits pivoting -- but both would be nouns, and in this case they're clearly verbs. The toves are gyring and gimbling, or at least they did gyre and gimble. Pretty often when a noun is turned to a verb, it doesn't mean exactly what it used to. And, when it's applied to something that we don't know, we should tread cautiously about it having acquired a different meaning than we're used to. English is nothing if not free with having multiple meanings for words.
b) wabe ... probably some kind of place. We might be unsurprised with 'field' 'park' or the like here. On the other hand, it could also be more of an event -- a party, ballgame. Or could even be abstract ('the ether', 'the astral plane').

3)All mimsy were the borogoves
a) Borogoves are things that can be mimsy
b) Mimsiness occupies some kind of range, from not mimsy at all, to all mimsy. These particular borogoves are all mimsy. I can just see the scientific writing here: "We examined a sample (N = 30) of borgoves, and found their average mimsiness to be 45% with a range of 30 to 95% mimsy." Replace borogove with 'meteorological station' and mimsiness with 'completeness' and there's many a paper on the subject.

4) and the mome raths, outgrabe.
a) likewise, raths can be mome. There are some non-mome raths out there probably.
b) further, raths, or at least mome raths, can be outgrabe.
c) We might also guess that raths and borogoves have some tendency to be near each other.

5) Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

a) Beware the Jabberwock. Easy enough; if you see a jabberwock, beware.
b) Jabberwocks are things that have jaws and claws. These are probably either why you should beware of a jabberwock, or how it is that you'll identify one. (They could also spit venom, but you won't know that until it's too late. The jaws and claws should be obvious much earlier.)

6) Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

a) Ok, there's a Jubjub, which is some kind of bird. It'd be nice to know what one looks like, so that we can properly beware.
b) More interesting, and helpful, is 'shun the frumious Bandersnatch'
i) Bandersnatches are things than can be frumious, and generally are (compare 'shun the poisonous rattlesnake' -- all rattlesnakes are poisonous, but in giving a warning, we do much more often use the redundant modifiers)
ii) we should shun them. Now this is interesting. Jabberwocks and Jubjubs, we should beware, but Bandersnatches we should shun. Shun is a social word, meaning we should not socialize with Bandersnatches. We would not say 'shun the poisonous rattlesnake', it'd be 'beware', 'flee', and the like. Shunning, we'd do with someone who was socially unacceptable 'shun the bore', 'shun the self-involved', and so on. Bandersnatches, apparently, are some kind of social creature that one could interact with, but you shouldn't. The reason we should not socialize with them is probably that they're frumious -- that's why the redundant modifier got used. So now we know that frumious describes some socially unacceptable behavior (at least to the person speaking).

I won't go through the whole thing. It's a piece of Through the Looking Glass, and you can find the whole Jabberwocky here.

Even with a torrent of unknown words, we can infer quite a lot about the things being discussed. In reading scientific work, unknown words will be common, so getting used to inferring what you can (couldn't make much headway on the Jubjub bird, but a fair amount on those frumious Bandersnatches) is a very good idea. Then keep reading and see how things get elaborated on. In Jabberwocky we never do hear more about the Jubjubs, so we're stuck at they're some kind of bird to beware. In a scientific paper, you'll usually see the same terms come up repeatedly, in different forms and contexts, so that it is often possible to build up a pretty good image by the time you slog through it. I confess it's a slog, since I've read papers outside my fields, and they're much more work to read than papers in my fields. Still, I get there.


Hank Roberts said...

and, of course ...

Anonymous said...

This is great stuff. I'm thinking of all of the educators who could use this. English and science obviously, but also ESL and foreign language educators.

Adrian Cockcroft said...

For non-mathematicians, a similar approach to the parody Wockyjabber by Hilbert Schenck, Jr. http://www76.pair.com/keithlim/jabberwocky/parodies/wockyjabber.html might help them figure out some higher math perhaps?

'Twas finite, and the polar cusp,
Orthogonal to the secant lay.
The semi-tacnode operates on
The Gudermanian of A.

"Beware the integral, my son,
With shape of non-symmetric bell,
Beware old Van der Pol, and shun
The curious vector del."

greenfyre said...

Will Part II be
Hunting of the Snark?
Hunting of the Snark?
Hunting of the Snark?

I have said it thrice:!
and so look forward to the next installment :-)

Horatio Algeranon said...

Horatio has done a rendition called "Jabberbloggy"

S2 said...

My favourite bit from the Snark:

THE Bellman himself they all praised to the skies
Such a carriage, such ease and such grace!
Such solemnity, too! One could see he was wise,
The moment one looked in his face!

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
"They are merely conventional signs!

It doesn't need much interpretation, though.