Archive for July, 2013

Gravity and Language

While doing a revision of my first science fiction novel several years ago, I came across a somewhat unusual situation with regard to two very specific English words.  One word, encircled, is relatively well-known in English, but the other, ensphered, isn’t.  (In fact, the second word is so unusual it isn’t even in the WordPress dictionary and it flagged it as soon as I wrote it.)  Why should there be such an asymmetry in usage between these two words?  They have similar meanings, differing only by the number of dimensions.

I suspect it’s due to gravity.  Not situational gravity, mind you, but the gravity that keeps us and everything else on the surface of the Earth, keeps the moon circling the Earth and the Earth circling the sun, and so on and so on.  Encircle means to enclose in a circle.  That circle may be geometrically exact, as, for example, drawing a circle with a compass around another drawn figure, or it may be rough, as when the Indians encircled the wagon train.  This is a two-dimensional figure.  It has length and width, but not height.   Ensphere has the same meaning, but in three dimensions.  To ensphere is to enclose fully in a sphere, that is, in a three-dimensional figure.  Remember back to when you took plane geometry and solid geometry.  (You did take solid, didn’t you?)  But those of us who live on this Earth don’t think in those terms very often, because ensphering something almost never happens.  This is where gravity comes in.

Gravity pulls everything toward the Earth’s surface.  When I was doing that revision of my novel, I had written a couple of paragraphs about smoke ensphering two people in microgravity.  In a gravity field, gravity will pull the denser, cooler air downward and the warmer, less dense smoke will rise.  It’s trying to get “above” the cooler air.  But in microgravity, the smoke doesn’t “rise.”  As it is generated, it stays in one place and the sphere of smoke grows larger and larger, expanding outward from the point at which it is generated equally in all directions.  In my novel, it eventually ensphered the two characters.  That’s so different from anything most of us experience in daily life.  It appears that gravity pulls our “thinking” in a downward direction too.  That’s one effect of gravity I’d never thought about.  Neat, huh?

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