Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Buying a science dictionary

Recently, I bought a set of science dictionaries: “Oxford Dictionary of Biology”, “Oxford Dictionary of Chemistry”, and “Oxford Dictionary of Physics”. Here is a summary of the thought processes I went through during this purchase, presented as a dialogue between me and my alter ego Devon.

Devon: You have encyclopedias and some science dictionaries already. Why get more?

Dave: Encyclopedias (online and Encarta/Britannica on computer) give in-depth treatment of big topics, but not at the terminology level. My other science dictionaries are old. “A Dictionary of Physical Sciences” is from 1976 (30 years). “The Penguin Dictionary of Science, 5th edition” is from 1979 (27 years). “Chambers Science and Technology Dictionary” is from 1988 (18 years). I needed more up to date references.

Devon: So, why would you need updated science dictionaries? Are you reading scientific papers or something?

Dave: In fact yes, as part of my personal development. Science makes so much progress each year that even specialists, not to mention a layperson such as myself, need additional resources to understand the available literature. I love science and reference books, so this is a pleasurable purchase.

Devon: Why buy a dictionary? Can’t you just do a web search and get the information for free?

Dave: While sufficient web search will turn up useful results, there are several disadvantages. 1, a search turns up too many results, and it is time consuming to wade through irrelevant or inappropriate material and breaks the train of thought of reading; 2, information from the web may not be accurate, or is more biased; 3, and sometimes a concise, easy to read definition is not available. All these issues are addressed by published reference books. Books are also portable.

Devon: You picked three dictionaries of the key sciences rather than a single science dictionary (e.g. the Oxford Dictionary of Science). What were your reasons?

Dave: A single-volume science dictionary was my initial choice. After some searching and waiting, my local bookstore (Chapters) has copies of the science, physics and chemistry dictionaries in stock, so I made some quick comparisons. The science dictionary is quite good, and contains most of the material in the specific dictionaries. Still, it omitted some entries (e.g. “quantum teleportation” was in physics dic but not science dic), and some entries are a bit shorter (e.g. “superstring” entry in physics dic had one more paragraph, which mentioned current string theory models are dualities of 11-dimension M-theory. I want that kind of extra information!) So, despite having overlaps in content, I chose to get all three physics/chemistry/biology dictionaries to maximize breadth and depth of content.

Devon: How did you settle on the Oxford series?

Dave: There actually aren’t too many brands in science dictionaries. Most the low cost ones are from UK publishers (Oxford, Penguin, and Collins), and more importanly these are also the ones more readily available in bookstores. Other candidates were American Heritage (updated 2005?), and the higher end ones from McGraw-Hill and Van Nostrand. Those however are not in stock so it is hard to judge them. Thus Oxford and Penguin were the ones I looked at the most.

I find the definitions in Penguin to be somewhat better. For example, in defining “Fermion”, Penguin adds that Baryons and Leptons are Fermions. This extra touch make the definition more informative. The Penguin Biology dictionary is also in the 11th edition, so it appears to be well edited. But Penguin also appears to lack certain areas. For example, the Penguin physics dictionary doesn’t have nanotechnology or “fullerene”. So in the end, I decided that have shorter definitions is better than no definition. Also, Oxford series are updated 2004/2005.

Devon: You bought the dictionaries from Why not choose a Canadian source like or Or even a brick and mortar store?

Dave: Online retailers have bigger discounts. I initially wanted to pick a Canadian online retailer.’s shipping of those books were 1-4 months! Chapters have next day shipping. But the strong Canadian dollar (at 90 cent at time of ordering) means that even though don’t have free shipping to Canada, it still works out to be cheaper getting it from the United States.

Devon: Thanks for all that information Dave. I’m looking forward to browsing and using those dictionaries.

Dave: Me too!

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