With New Year (anxiety of New Years past, dread of New Years future) breathing hot down my neck, and time itself moving along so fast that it seems to be about to lap me, Oxford University Press has produced a dictionary of two thousand new words.[*] I haven’t learned all the old ones yet. It’s very stressful. There ought to be a word for that second-half-of-life sense of time accelerating out of one’s orbit. The feeling of never quite catching up, of being always slightly then and never quite now, and out of breath with it. Or those nightmares of sitting for exams on subjects you never studied. But I haven’t found it so far, if you don’t include ‘ageing’. Here I am still trying to come to grips with black holes when suddenly I find that cold dark matter is on everyone’s lips. Being an inept visualiser, I am unable intuitively to grasp that a buckminsterfullerene is a ‘stable form of carbon whose nearly spherical, hollow molecule consists of 60 carbon atoms arranged in a shape with 12 pentagonal faces and 20 hexagonal ones (a truncated regular icosahedron)’. My heavens, ‘nearly spherical’, a ‘truncated regular icosahedron’, whatever happened to certainty and precision in science? Call it by its alternative name, footballene, and light comes flooding in (unless it is just my particular gift to be able to visualise a football).
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[*] Dictionary of New Words, edited by Elizabeth Knowles (Oxford, 366 pp., £14.99, 1997, 0 19 863152 9).