Attending mass

The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 2 2007 12:50 PM

Attending mass

Does a star mass?

I sometimes use the word "mass" as a verb, like, "That star masses 20 times that of the Sun". I know it sounds funny, but astronomers say it that way all the time. My friend Cindy Taylor, also an astronomer, took me to task for this some time ago. She thinks we shouldn't use it that way.

Advertisement

She has a point. I wouldn't say "The car lengths 2 meters", so why would I say "The car masses 1500 kilograms"? The problem is, we don't have a good verb for "mass". We can say "the car weighs 3000 pounds, " but what do we use for kilograms?

This brings up the whole mass versus weight issue, and whether you can use kilograms as a weight (I think it's OK as a shorthand if it's understood this is in one Earth gravity; on the Moon the weight is less but the mass is the same, so it can be confusing). But even without that added complication, what do we say when a star has a mass of 1030 kilograms? I guess we say it just like that: The star has a mass of 1030 kilograms. As an astronomer I suppose that's fine, but as a writer I have an issue with that: it's limiting. I need to use synonyms sometimes, or else things get boring. There is something a little more poetic in saying "The star masses 1030 kilograms." It's more adjective-friendly, too: "The star masses a whopping 1030 kilograms." Cool!

English is many things, but one of its more endearing qualities is that it's fluid. It changes, adapts, evolves. Slowly, sometimes, but inertia is a property of not just mass. So maybe it's time for English to take this tiny step forward, and learn how to mass.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.