I’ve just been reading Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and came across a copyediting error that put me in the frame of mind for a short post. It’s a caution that good copyeditors have to be extra careful to do (or not do) two things when working with technical material, especially if it’s not in a field they’re experts in.
First: never assume to know what a word means if you aren’t a specialist in that field; or to assume that a word is a misspelling of some other word you know. In fact, even if you’re expert in the field, you need to be careful.
Second: never trust autocorrect.
So, the error that got me on this subject is on page 212*, almost exactly half way down the page. The text reads:
Your maximum parking-orbit travel in four seconds is only thirty-two kilometers, diminishing asymptomatically to zero at landing.
That flagged word, asymptomatically, is wrong. Asymptomatically means, to paraphrase, ‘showing no symptoms.’ If I complain to my doctor that I have the flu, but she can’t find any signs of fever, aches, chills, and so on, she’ll likely note that I was asymptomatic, or presented asymptomatically.
The word should be asymptotically. Not asymptomatically. (Oddly, the WordPress spellchecker flags “asymptomatically” as a misspelling, and is happy with asymptotically. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a spellchecker do this. Good on you, WordPress developers! You’re geeks after my own heart. Now go and add asymptomatically to your dictionary.)
An asymptote is a term of geometry or mathematics, describing a particular value (usually a line) that a mathematical function approaches, but never reaches. It’s usually understood that the function will get infinitesimally close to that asymptote (or asymptotic value) but will never quite get there. If something in the physical universe can be described or graphed in the same way, it can (as in the example from the book) be said to be approaching a value asymptotically. You’ve all seen representations of asymptotes: graphs that show a value accelerating toward infinity by a given point in time are often asymptotic.
One of the most famous puzzles in mathematics (or is it philosophy? or logic?) involves an asymptote: Zeno’s Paradox. (There are actually several problems within Zeno’s Paradox, but we’ll only worry about the most famous here.) In a nutshell, the problem states that if someone fast — let’s say Achilles — is chasing something slow — let’s say a tortoise — and closes the distance by half in each decreasing unit of passing time, then Achilles can never reach the tortoise because each step and each unit of time get smaller, in an infinite series; Achilles gets closer each time, but the tortoise moves away a little more each time. Achilles can’t complete an infinite number of steps in a finite amount of time, therefore Achilles can never quite catch up to the tortoise, he can only get very, very close. The asymptote in this case is the tortoise; the function that approaches it is Achilles. (My summary of the problem might not be ideal, so check out wikipedia or another source for additional information.)
Zeno’s problem is a very special bit of nonsense. Of course, faster objects pursuing slower objects usually overtake them: that’s how the universe operates. But the problem has remained of interest because it raises important questions and, as I understand it, has been damnably hard to logically refute for most of human intellectual history. Again, wikipedia provides a quick summary of some of the arguments against Zeno’s Paradox. Modern calculus and physics (and a little clear thinking) have proven that the problem is solvable, unless perhaps one refuses to acknowledge the faulty way it mixes physical reality and abstract mathematics. When the paradox is cited today, it’s best used as a metaphor for trying to achieve perfection or for struggling to solve an unsolvable problem.
Asymptotes have practical applications outside logical paradoxes: asymptotic curves sometimes are used in architecture or engineering design.
I realize I’m approaching my main point asymptotically by now. Will I ever reach it or just come close without quite making it there? Bear with me a little longer.
Clearly, at a quick glance, asymptotically and asymptomatically look very much alike, despite having very different definitions. There are all sorts of other words in technical use that can give you this kind of “look alike” or “I know what that word is supposed to be” problem. When editing, it’s important not to make assumptions about what a word is “supposed to be,” simply because it’s similar to another word. Every field has its own jargon, it’s own specialized vocabulary. When you’re working with material in a field, you need to make sure you have access to handbooks or guides that explain that jargon, to keep you from making this sort of error.
The first “look alike jargon” problem I remember encountering, when I first began doing any kind of editorial work over 20 years ago, was soliton. Make sure you read that correctly: the word is soliton, not solution, as your eyes might automatically correct it to. A soliton is a special kind of wave which can manifest under certain quantum mechanical conditions. It has nothing to do with solutions.
Asymptotically has a special place in my heart, because I have direct experience with it in a writing and editing situation. In a document going through revision, a colleague kept changing the word to asymptomatically, even after it was explained to her what an asymptote was and why she needed to leave the word alone. To call this colleague ignorant or stubborn would be going too far, although both could be argued. The real problem relates to point number two at the start of this post: she was letting her word processor’s spellchecker do the work for her and was trusting autocorrect, which didn’t recognize asymptotically (but helpfully “corrected” it to asymptomatically). Fortunately, she didn’t have final approval on that document.
Keep these things in mind when editing science or science fiction: don’t assume you know what a word means (unless you really do), and certainly don’t assume that your spellchecker knows better than you do when it comes to technical and scientific jargon.
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*My reference point is the 1997 Orb Books edition, so this error might not exist if you look for it in a different version. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by the way, is a great book. I’m aware that there is some harsh criticism of it out there, some of it justified, but I still think it works very well as a novel. If you’re a science-fiction fan and haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to get around to it. If you’ve read it, but not within the last 15 or 20 years, it probably won’t hurt to read it again.
I have no idea who copyedited this edition of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and don’t want to appear critical. Overall, they did a fantastic job with an extremely difficult manuscript: large portions of the narration and dialogue are in an invented pidgin-English dialect that is not always easy to read…and which must have been a real bitch to edit (it’s no Riddley Walker, but it’s still a challenge). The total job was pulled off masterfully: I wasn’t counting, but noticed fewer than a dozen errors across the book’s 382 printed pages, and all of those were simple, such as a dropped article or missed plural. Considering the scale of the job, that’s not just an acceptable error rate, but one to be applauded.