New ideas require new words. So if you want to know where change is happening, keep an eye on the language. That’s what author and artist Jonathon Keats has been doing in WIRED’s Jargon Watch column for more than a decade. Each month, like a literary lepidopterist, he takes his butterfly net out to the wild verges of science, culture, technology–anywhere new frontiers are opening–to collect the coolest new lexical specimens.
The global-warming effect of a red algae that blooms in melting snow. The resulting pink hue reduces the albedo (reflectivity) of ice caps and glaciers, causing them to absorb more of the sun’s rays and melt even faster.
A way of preserving digital data in perpetuity. By writing every bit–each 0 or 1–as tiny dots on metal tape, it eliminates all reliance on obsolescent devices or file formats. A future apocalypse survivor would need only a microscope and knowledge of binary code to piece your Instagram feed back together.
Stoplights in the pavement, introduced in Germany for pedestrians who text while walking. A contraction of boden (ground) and ampeln (traffic lights), bompeln are said to help keep “smombies” (smartphone zombies) undead.
Administering medical marijuana with an e-cigarette. It’s healthier than a joint and offers better dosage control than a brownie. It’s also way less fun, requiring more than 80 hits to get stoned.
The dark-matter equivalent of sunlight. The idea is, if dark particles in the sun collide, that may create “dark photons.” We wouldn’t see them, but there’s a good chance they’d decay into detectable positrons and electrons–confirma-tion that dark matter really exists.
Caused by blasts from supermassive black holes, which are found in the center of most galaxies, galactic warming makes things so hot that gases can’t coalesce to form new stars. That could be how our own Milky Way burns out someday.
People who remain healthy despite having genetic mutations associated with serious disorders. Uncovering the secret to their resilience may suggest new ways of preventing and treating diseases.
Virtual teleporting. By combining 3-D videocams and mixed-reality headsets, the system can shoot a full-body image of you and your every move to a boardroom (or bedroom) somewhere else.
A new error code indicating a web page is blocked by censorship or a takedown notice. A reference to Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451, it can be used by sites to make a machine-readable political statement.
Ancient insects that looked and acted like modern butterflies. The weird thing is they went extinct, and nature evolved the same kind of creatures all over again 50 million years later. It’s like butterflies were just meant to be.
A proposed name for a new chemical element, honoring the late, legendary Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead. Fittingly, element 115 is a volatile, superheavy metal. However, the word was short-lived; Russian scientists insisted on the name muscovium, which has since been approved by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). It joins an insipid litany at the bottom of the periodic table along with americium, berkelium, californium, europium, francium, livermorium, and tennessine.
A fuel additive that can prevent explosions in a plane or car crash–something researchers have sought for 40 years. These ultralong polymers break apart to pass through fuel pumps and filters but then reassemble. In an impact, the long chains keep fuel drops from fragmenting into a combustible mist.
A flash produced when electrons move faster than light, akin to the boom of supersonic jets. Breaking the “light barrier” sounds like sci-fi, but physicists say it can happen in graphene sheets. The discovery could spark development of optical circuits a million times faster than silicon chips.
Mineral layers that form around pebbles over thousands of years. Like tree rings, they hold a chronicle of climate conditions. From the Greek word for soil (pedon), pedothems are a dirt-cheap source of priceless data.
A snippet of synthetic, mirror-image DNA dropped into a genetic sample before sequencing. Genetic tests are error-prone, and sequins (short for sequencing spike-ins) provide a benchmark that labs can use to verify the accuracy of results–a vital step for personalized medicine.
Hurling your mouth forward to eat something. It’s not attractive, but the goblin shark, a flabby denizen of the deep sea, relies on this trick to make up for its pathetic swimming. Thanks to extra-long jaw ligaments, a 12-foot adult can shoot its teeth ahead by more than a foot.
A personal trustworthiness rating mandated by the Chinese government for implementation by 2020. A numerical score will be assigned to every Chinese citizen based on spending habits, social activities, and criminal record, determining employment opportunities and access to housing.
An electrode array that can be slipped into a cranial blood vessel through a catheter. By transmitting brain signals, it could allow quadriplegics to operate an exoskeleton–or finally let you change TV channels with your thoughts.
A surgically implanted tube and belly valve that lets you pump food out of your body after a meal. The FDA has approved it for weight loss, but not all physicians approve. One critic calls it “mechanized bulimia.”
A method of using a Tesla coil, ray-gun style, to manipulate matter from a distance. By projecting a high-voltage electric field, researchers have induced carbon nanotubes to self-assemble into tiny circuits.
Jonathan Keats (@jonathonkeats) writes the monthly Jargon Watch column in WIRED magazine. He is the author of five books, including Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology.