On the impossibility of defining anything whatsoever (as Rob might have you believe) (Was: Re: New issue?: vocabulary maintenance
agray at dcs.gla.ac.uk
Wed Feb 6 08:50:23 PST 2008
I'm afraid I have a quibble.
Brian Thomas wrote:
> Ah Rob,
> I knew as I was writting my email that you would respond and
> be positioned at the other side of the fence.
> Let me ask this simple question : if the definition of astronomy
> concepts (or the concepts of any field) are in general impossible
> as you seem to indicate, then how do any text books get written?
> How does one write a dictionary? I note that these things exist,
> and are generally accepted without the public rushing in on the
> offending author(s) with Frankenstein rakes and burning torches.
> We are not looking for "complete" definitions, but rather, simple,
> workaday ones which will serve the purpose of general identification
> of a subject/concept. At risk of further falling into a trap you have
> laid for me, I'll try a simple definition of gamma ray burst from
> the wikipedia:
> Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are the most luminous events occurring in the universe since the Big Bang.
> They are flashes of gamma rays emanating from seemingly random places in deep space at random times.
> The duration of a gamma-ray burst is typically a few seconds, but can range from a few milliseconds to
> minutes, and the initial burst is usually followed by a longer-lived "afterglow" emitting at longer wavelengths
> (X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio). Gamma-ray bursts are detected by orbiting satellites
> about two to three times per week, but their actual rate of occurrence is much higher because not all
> bursts are pointed at Earth.
This is somewhat long-winded for a definition in a vocabulary. Ideally
we want a sentence or two to succinctly convey the idea of the concept
without pinning down the definition too far that it is controversial.
> So...you would tell me that the above paragraph (easily obtained, I might add)
> is insufficient for a general definition of a GRB?!?
> I would like to further add that if some people argue with this definition..
> so what? They may start their own vocabulary, -or-, they may engage
> us to either fix the definition or to evolve the vocabulary. Either recourse seems
> reasonable to me, and perfectly practicable.
> On Wednesday 06 February 2008 11:13:54 am Rob Seaman wrote:
>> Brian Thomas wrote:
>>> On a population of 1000 terms, I was able to use the WordNet to
>>> garner 800
>>> or so definitions. From those, it had an overall accuracy (this is
>>> from memory)
>>> of about 75% (in otherwords, about 75% of the time, the definition
>>> fine with no editing).
>> Definition is driven by usage. The OED was assembled by a team who
>> scoured every primary source they could get their hands on, writing
>> examples of usage on innumerable scraps of paper. Usage is also how
>> the list of UCDs was compiled.
>>> I image that we can create definitions which are "generally"
>>> accurate and
>> Acceptable for what purpose(s)?
>>> For the really controversial terms (and how many of these can
>>> there possibly be??)
>> Consider even something as overtly obvious as "planet". Many terms
>> such as "universal time" have multiple conflicting definitions. Are
>> we signing on to convey the 150 different meanings of the word "set"?
>>> we can provide pointers to 'seminal' papers =or= better
>>> yet, just drop any definition at all and save the argument for a
>>> rainy day.
>> Let's focus on compiling a list of terms first, their meanings later
>> (or never). Actually, an indication of the success of VO efforts will
>> be when the larger community of astronomers regards it as unremarkable
>> that they are using VO facilities to compile such definitions.
>> What is the definition of a "gamma-ray burst", for instance? Is it
>> what the name says, a detected burst of celestial gamma-rays, meeting
>> some threshold criteria of amplitude and time variability? Or is it
>> the underlying physical phenomenon - the engine driving the burst?
>> Both, but especially the latter, are subject to definition and
>> redefinition for as long as related phenomena remain an active area of
>> In science, definition is also driven by theory and experiment.
>> - Rob
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