The Power of Mysterious Words

DOI: 10.2138/gselements.17.5.299

John Eiler

One of the joys of growing up in a little-remarked-upon corner of the upper Midwest USA is that it came with its own secret words and rituals—cricks and bubblers, hotdishes and euchre. The Wisconsin patois served as a daily reminder that humans have a passion for using mysterious languages to express the numinous: cants and glossolalia that describe new things or express new ideas or emotions, and that draw lines, intentionally or otherwise, between the community of “insiders” and everyone else.

Scientists do much the same thing, particularly when wrestling with new, challenging, or hotly debated problems. Quantum mechanics is arguably among the most important and widespread systems of scientific thought, and underlies cell phones and much else in modern life, yet how many of us could provide appropriate definitions of its secret words—‘eigenstate’, ‘nonlocality’, ‘Hilbert space’, and so forth?

But as a maturing scientific discipline winds down its first-order debates and begins to take firm shape, the specialists may tame their jargon, making an abstruse intellectual home ready to receive outside guests. Igneous petrologists are a familiar community that has (mostly) forced its major mysteries into a unified paradigm and tidied up its talk. Time was, competence in the field demanded that you were free in your speech with words like ‘anemeseids’, ‘larvikites’, ‘natriopletes’ and ‘shonkinites’. Today, you can cover most any igneous rock you encounter using a standardized system of the dozen-odd names that occupy the boxes on a ternary diagram. Of course, there are still a few ‘mangerites’ and ‘sanukitoids’ hiding in the less understood corners of the room, but, overall, this is a field whose original secret language has been redacted, systematized, and demystified.

When you dig into the substance of this issue of Elements you will discover that carbonatites remain untamed mysteries, still approached through exotic words that reflect strange, half-understood objects and ideas. There are ‘bastnäsites’, ‘beforsites’, and ‘carbocernaites’. ‘Phoscorites’, ‘søvites’ (and more) await you, all reaching out toward us at the Earth’s surface through the catharsis of ‘diatresis’ and ‘fenitization’. How should we respond to a subject that is encountered in the mature modern scientific world but that still speaks in the cants and jargon from an earlier, more numinous age?

“Rejoice!” I say. Certainty and simplicity are overrated. The author of this issue’s Perspectives piece, Francesco Stoppa, makes an on-point reference to the 19th century conflict between plutonists and neptunists. Like that debate from the founding era of the geosciences, the study of carbonatites forces us to confront parts of the rock record that are peculiar, unfamiliar, composed of substances outside our daily experience, and that have formed in environments that don’t fit neatly into accepted categories. Are carbonatites fundamentally igneous or metamorphic rocks? Perhaps “Yes” to both sides. Do they derive from the lithosphere, or are they rooted in processes from the deep mantle? You be the judge. Our authors may struggle with, and sometimes disagree about, these and other first-order questions. But that mysteriousness and uncertainty comes with something special—an opportunity to encounter a subject that is wide open to transformational discovery and reinterpretation.

John Eiler
Principal Editor

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