ELI CHEN: So after he saw how the candy bar melted, he put an egg under the magnetron tube, and that exploded and covered his face in egg. And thanks to that we have the microwave.
JOHANNA MAYER: Hello hello, Science Diction is back with another round of Diction Dash, where I try (and usually fail) to guess the true meaning or origin of a word. We’ve got a big old pile of words that you, our dear listeners, have sent to us asking us. So today, with the help of a couple friends, we are tackling two of them.
I’m Johanna Mayer. This is Diction Dash.
JOHANNA MAYER: First up, Justine Paradis, a reporter and producer at Outside/In from New Hampshire Public Radio. Hi Justine.
JUSTINE PARADIS: Hi Johanna.
JOHANNA MAYER: What listener-suggested word do you have for us?
JUSTINE PARADIS: I have selected the word syzygy.
JOHANNA: Syzygy. How do you spell that?
JUSTINE PARADIS: So I actually- I read that this is the shortest word in the English language containing three “y’s” - which I can’t definitively confirm that to be true. I didn’t go through the whole dictionary-
JOHANNA MAYER: [laughs]
JUSTINE PARADIS: -but three y’s in six letters is a very bold choice.
So it’s spelled: s - y - z - y - g - y. Syzygy.
JOHANNA MAYER: Okay.
JUSTINE PARADIS: And before we get to the quiz part of this, I’m just gonna to give you two clues. So this is a word that has Latin, and before that, Greek, and before that, Proto-Indo-European origins.
JOHANNA MAYER: Oh boy.
JUSTINE PARADIS: Right. [laughs]. But essentially the Greek root word for this is suzugia, which further breaks down to the root “syn,” which means “together” and “zygon” meaning “yoked” or “paired.” And the three y’s I would say are also a clue. It is, like the Sherlock Holmes mystery, a sign of three.
JOHANNA MAYER: Hm. Okay. Uh, I feel still completely adrift with this, and I still have no idea despite these clues.
JUSTINE PARADIS: [laughs] So in syzygy, does this concept of “yoking together” refer to, one, the situation in which two eggs are fertilized. So these are zygotes. One of them splits and then those three zygotes are triplets forming inside the womb. So that’s option one.
Two, the orbital alignment of three or more celestial bodies -so like two moons and a planet.
JOHANNA MAYER: That’s very poetic.
JUSTINE PARADIS: And then the third option is a chemistry term referring to a triple bond, which is a chemical covalent bond involving two atoms and six bonding electrons. So carbon monoxide, for example, is triple-bonded. So the three options are the zygotes, orbits, or chemical bonds.
JOHANNA MAYER: Um, I also just have to say that I’m very- like, two of these answers are fake, and I’m very impressed with your fake answer writing skills.
JUSTINE PARADIS: [laughs]
JOHANNA MAYER: They all sound very real and very plausible.
JUSTINE PARADIS: Well, I will say that they are all real things. They are all real. They’re just not all a syzygy.
JOHANNA MAYER: Okay, I have no clue, so I’m gonna to go with my- just the one that I like the sound of the best, which is B, the celestial planets aligned.
JUSTINE PARADIS: Hey! You got it right.
JOHANNA MAYER: Is that it? Oh good, I love that.
JUSTINE PARADIS: That is it. So syzygy, it has a few meanings, but the most commonly used is this one, in astronomy. It refers to the alignment of any three or more celestial bodies, but you mostly hear it talked about in relationship with Earth, the moon and the sun.
So, a syzygy, if you picture the Earth, the moon, and the sun, we’re all kind of rotating around each other. But twice a month - at the full moon and the new moon - the moon, the sun, and the Earth, are all in a row, they’re in alignment, they’re in a syzygy. So during the new moon, it’s sun, moon, Earth, with the moon in the middle. And during the full moon it’s Earth in the middle.
JOHANNA MAYER: Huh.
JUSTINE PARADIS: So this actually became quite relevant recently. Did you hear about the - I’m sure you did - the container ship in the Suez Canal recently?
JOHANNNA MAYER: One of my all time favorites news stories, yes. I followed it closely.
JUSTINE PARADIS: Extremely relatable-
JOHANNA MAYER: Yes.
JUSTINE PARADIS: - getting stuck in a canal, blocking global shipping traffic.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yes.
JUSTINE PARADIS: So syzygy actually became very relevant here because it helped engineers to free this ship. Basically, what happens in these moments is the gravitational force of the moon and that of the sun combine in such a way that it makes the oceans bulgier, so the high tides are higher and low tides are lower. It happens twice a month. These are called spring tides. And this was no ordinary syzygy. It was a supermoon, which is when a syzygy coincides with the moment in the moon’s cycle that’s closest to the Earth, so extra potent. So it helped them float the ship out of the place where it was stuck because the tides were a foot and a half higher than normal.
JOHANNA MAYER: Was that something they were tracking and like, watching for?
JUSTINE: Yes, yeah, they knew it was going to happen, and so they had to prepare for it. They had this one opportunity because two weeks after that it’s also the lowest tides, so it was a real window.
JOHANNA: Oh, they would have been in a very real pickle.
JUSTINE PARADIS: Yeah, exactly. So this time, a syzygy helped. But sometimes it hurts. Like during Hurricane Sandy, there was also a supermoon syzygy. But in that case, it increased storm surge and exacerbated flooding and erosion, so it can have all kinds of effects, right?
There’s one more bonus thing that I can tell you, which, that- Syzygy is- I mean, I love the word. It’s such a fun word. But I will say that I’m not the only person to think so. Like, a lot of people really like this concept. It’s the name of characters in sci-fi novels, it’s a concept in Russian philosophy, there’s an electronica group named for syzygy… The list goes on.
JOHANNA MAYER: I was gonna say “supermoon syzygy” sounds like a rock band. [laughs]
JUSTINE PARADIS: You should start it.
JOHANNA MAYER: I feel like I can see the t-shirt with, like, the moon in the background, and the lightning bolts for the ‘s’ and the ‘y’ and the ‘g’s in it.
JUSTINE PARADIS: Oh man, you really have a vision. This is great.
JOHANNA MAYER: I do. I do. [laughs] Thank you so much Justine. This was really fun.
JUSTINE PARADIS: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
JOHANNA MAYER: Next up, I fail a pop culture quiz I didn’t even know I was taking.
ELI CHEN: I went with a word that I first heard in a very popular early 2000s rom com, Serendipity.
JOHANNA: Ooh, which rom com?
ELI CHEN: Uh, well, it’s Serendipity.
JOHANNA MAYER: And I find out which country's name is hidden inside that word slash apparently very famous movie I have never heard of.
JOHANNA MAYER: Next up, Eli Chen senior editor of Overheard at National Geographic. Hey Eli.
ELI CHEN: Hey Johanna. Thanks for having me on.
JOHANNA MAYER: What listener-suggested word do you have for us today?
ELI CHEN: So I went with a word that I first heard in a very popular early 2000s rom com, Serendipity.
JOHANNA MAYER: Ooh, which rom com?
ELI CHEN: Uh, well, it’s Serendipity. It was starring -
JOHANNA MAYER: Oh it’s called Serendipity?
ELI CHEN: Yeah, it’s starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, and in the movie, it’s the name of this ice cream shop that she’s obsessed with. It’s also, like, one of her favourite words. She tells him, over, like, I don’t know coffee or something that it means “fortunate accident.”
JOHANNA MAYER: Okay, must watch this movie.
ELI CHEN: So Johanna, I’m gonna give you three options to guess the origin story of this word.
JOHANNA MAYER: Alrighty.
ELI CHEN: Okay, option A, it’s an extension of the word “serenity” to describe how accidental discoveries seem to be made when a person is in a serene or calm state and not intending to make that discovery. B, it’s a reference to an old fairytale about three princes from a place called Serendip who go on adventures and discover things by chance.
JOHANNA MAYER: Okay.
ELI CHEN: And C, it’s a word that came from English pirates in the late 1600s when they unexpectedly came across islands with rich resources.
JOHANNA MAYER: Okay, let’s do a quick recap. So serenity, fairy tale, pirates and islands?
ELI CHEN: Yes.
JOHANNA MAYER: Okay. I loved A so much. I’m just going to go for that.
ELI CHEN: Actually, it’s the weird option. It’s B. It’s the old fairytale.
JOHANNA MAYER: That’s wild.
ELI CHEN: So, there’s a little bit of a convoluted story behind this, so just kind of bear with me. But it was coined by this 18th Century English writer named Horace Walpole. And when Horace was a young man, he visited Florence and became super obsessed with this painting of an Italian duchess named Bianca Capello.
JOHANNA MAYER: Hm.
ELI CHEN: And he was so taken by her beauty that he would stare at the portrait for hours. And then some years later, a friend of his who was a British envoy to Florence came across this painting, and he buys it, and he mails it to Horace. And Horace writes a letter to his very generous friend. He’s so excited about this chance encounter between his beloved painting and his friend that he’s inspired to come up with a new word, which is serendipity. He pulls this from a very old Persian fairy tale called the Three Princes of Serendip.
JOHANNA MAYER: Aha...
ELI CHEN: Yeah, this fairytale is about how this king who was the father of these three princes wanted them to have the best education they could possibly get. So he has the wisest men in their kingdom teach them, and then- [laughs] and then the king banishes his sons from the kingdom to force them to get out in the world and gain some life experience.
JOHANNA MAYER: [laughs] Yeah.
ELI CHEN: So then the princes go on a bunch of random adventures where they use their wits to figure things out because they’re so educated now. And if I can be totally honest, when I read a little bit about this fairytale, like, the events in them didn’t seem all that serendipitous. It’s more like the princes go around solving mysteries. But I guess Horace saw some fortunate accidents there. So he gave us this word.
JOHANNA MAYER: Okay, so let me see if I have this story. It’s like guy sees a painting, falls in love with the painting, friend surprises that guy by sending him the painting. He’s so moved that he comes up with this word, serendipity, that is an homage to an old fairy tale related to the land of... was it Serendip?
ELI CHEN: Yeah.
JOHANNA MAYER: Okay, Serendip was the name of the place?
ELI CHEN: Yeah, you got that. So funny enough, the word Serendip, actually, it’s an old Persian word for Sri Lanka. So in sort of an interesting roundabout way, serendipity is actually about Sri Lanka.
JOHANNA MAYER: I had no idea.
Yeah, so serendipity can be a very important thing in science, in that researchers will set up an experiment to find something, and then they’ll discover something totally different and useful along the way. So there are famous examples of that in history, like the discovery of penicillin and also microwaves.
JOHANNA MAYER: For anyone who doesn’t know, what’s the serendipity in penicillin?
ELI CHEN: Yeah, so penicillin is one of the most talked about examples of accidental scientific discoveries. In the late 1920s, a scientist named Alexander Fleming was studying staphylococcus, which is a type of bacteria known for causing all kinds of terrible infections.
JOHANNA MAYER: Oh yeah, staph infections.
ELI CHEN: Yeah. Yeah. And so, he had some in a petri dish and he went on a two-week vacation and didn’t realize he left it out on, like, a lab bench. And somehow, a Penicillium mold spore, you know, got introduced to the petri dish, probably from a nearby lab that was culturing all kinds of molds. And what resulted was this antibacterial substance that Fleming called “mold juice” and it weakened-
JOHANNA MAYER: [laughs] Ew.
ELI CHEN: Yeah, lovely word for it. Yeah, yeah, he called it mold juice, and it basically kept that bacteria from growing. So Fleming didn’t actually recognize the significance of this for, like, more than a decade - he kept trying to use it as a topical antiseptic. But thanks to his accident, penicillin became our first mass produced antibiotic.
JOHANNA MAYER: Okay, so now we gotta hear about microwaves.
ELI CHEN: Yeah, microwaves is really interesting. It’s all because of an engineer’s snack. So there was an engineer at Raytheon which made all kinds of stuff for the military. And it’s this guy named Percy Spencer. In 1946, he was standing near a magnetron when he noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had melted.
JOHANNA MAYER: Wait, do we know what kind of candy bar? Just curious.
ELI CHEN: Yeah, so there’s kind of cute story behind it. So I read this Popular Mechanics article where, you know, they interviewed Percy Spencer’s grandson, and he said his grandfather always carried around, like, a peanut cluster bar in his pocket that he’d break up and feed the squirrels during his lunch hour.
JOHANNA MAYER: [laughs] Oh my god. That is so cute.
ELI CHEN: Yeah, it is. It is super cute. And thanks to that, we have the microwave. Because the magnetron was melting his candybar with electromagnetic waves, specifically microwaves. So after he saw how the candy bar melted, he put an egg under the magnetron tube, and that exploded and covered his face in egg. And then the following day, he brought corn kernels, and he used microwaves to pop them, and he shared that popcorn with everyone else at the office. And that’s basically how he discovered microwaves could be used to cook food.
JOHANNA MAYER: So microwaves have their origins in office snacks, essentially.
ELI CHEN: Yeah, yup.
JOHANNA MAYER: Eli Chen, thank you so much.
ELI CHEN: Yeah, thank you, Johanna.
JOHANNA MAYER: If you have a word that you want us to cover, let us know! You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or - better yet!
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leave us a message brand spankin' new phone number. Give us a call, leave a message, and we might play it on the show. The number is 929-499-WORD. That’s 929 499 9673.
Science Diction is produced by me and our Senior Producer and Editor, Elah Feder. Our music was composed by Daniel Peterschmidt. Fact checking by Robin Palmer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer, and she and Ira Flatow hatch up some pretty innovative ideas sometimes. Their latest project is a SciFri-branded energy drink. It’s really amazing stuff. It’s all pure ingredients, totally organic, gives you energy for days. And the best part is the name. Nadja gives Ira credit for that.
ELI CHEN: Yeah, yeah, he called it mold juice
JOHANNA MAYER: See you in a couple weeks.