Simanaitis Says

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IN THE old days, I mean really old, the word “scientist” didn’t exist. I learned this reading “Megafauna,” by Adrienne Mayor, in the London Review of Books, July 2, 2015 issue. The article is about Aristotle, who flourished around 330 B.C, and his method of studying nature.


Aristotle, 384 – 322 B.C., Greek philosopher, scientist (in retrospect), tutor of Alexander the Great.

Though no one at the time would have termed Aristotle a scientist, his approach contained the essentials of the scientific method: observing reality, proposing models of it and testing the models’ predictions with experimentation.


William Whewell, 1794 – 1866, English philosopher, polymath, wordsmith, theologian.

It wasn’t until 1833 that William Whewell, Master at Trinity College, Cambridge, invented the word “scientist,” by analogy with “artist.” As noted in Mayor’s LRB article, Whewell coined the term at a meeting of the new British Association for the Advancement of Science.

According to the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, Whewell wrote, quite logically, “We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist.”

Note, the word science is much older. The OED traces the English word as appearing in the 1300s, from Latin, scientia, knowledge. In 1374, our pal Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “The soule had hath in it self science of goode werkes.” He even got the spelling right.


Sir Isaac Newton, 1642 – 1726, English natural philosopher extraordinaire. Portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1689.

Into the 18th century, science and philosophy of nature were one and the same. Practitioners were known as natural philosophers. And, to this day, a high academic achievement is the Ph.D., Doctor of Philosophy. By contrast, Sc.D., Doctor of Science, has been reserved for recognition, often honorary, beyond the Ph.D.

During the 19th century, an increased specialization of scientific endeavors led to biology, chemistry, geology, physics and the rest. Through all this, polymath Whewell was quite the wordsmith. Along with scientist, he also originated the words physicist, anode, cathode, dielectric and ion.

While we’re here, polymath deserves a philologist’s touch. It comes from the Greek, πολυμαθής, having learned much. We recognize the poly part as much or many: polynomials, for example, expressions of multiple terms. The learned part, μαθής, shows the importance in Greek thought of mathematics, μαθηματικά, and learning in general, μάθηση. Notice, in English usage, a polymath knows a lot about many different things, though not necessarily mathematics.

Of course, right-thinking polymaths would know a thing or two, wouldn’t they?

Last, let analyze “cyberphilologist,” a word of my own coining. Philology is the love of learning, Greek, philos, love; logia, learning. I add the hip “cyber” prefix in honor of Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics in 1948, from the Greek steersman. (Cyber is too recent to make my 1971 OED; it made the 2010 update.) Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary study of human/machine interactions including elements of control theory, feedback and system dynamics.


Norbert Wiener, 1894 – 1964, American mathematician, MIT Professor.

Wiener was the prototypical absent-minded professor. As reported in MIT Technology Review, June 21, 2011, there was the time he reported theft of his car, only to discover that he had driven it to Providence, Rhode Island, for a talk and taken the train back. Another time, he concluded a conversation in an MIT hallway by asking which way he had been headed when he stopped to chat. Given the direction, he said, “Good! That means I’ve already had lunch.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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