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GRE Vocab Wednesday: Science Words

Hello Clemmonsdogparkers! This week’s Vocab Wednesday is text-only. Sorry to deprive you of Chris’ amazing videos! We will have a new one for you next week, but in the meantime here are to tide you over. 🙂

Don’t worry! I’m not going to throw mitochondria, parallax, or spectroscopy at you. Words that are only used in a scientific context and have not acquired a more general meaning have no place on GRE Vocab Wednesday.  The words below—while originally from science—also have a more general meaning that you need to know for the GRE.



A cathartic is anything that functions as a laxative (in other words, a medicine that helps you purge your bowels). I’m sure this would make for quite a colorful Text Completion, but the only definition of cathartic the GRE will test is anything that cleanses or purifies you. A week camping in the mountains can be cathartic, as it clears both your head and your lungs. Sharing anxieties and stress in your life with a close friend are all cathartic. The noun form catharsis is also an important GRE word.



Ever spill “chemical-ly” stuff on your skin? Maybe cleaning fluid, disinfectant or the like? Well, the reason such fluid stings is the liquid is corrosive and burns. Another word, in this context, for corrosive is caustic. Caustic can also describe any comment that is really nasty and sarcastic. A caustic remark, figuratively speaking, is likely to get under your skin.



Empirical has nothing to do with empire, but is actually derived from a Greek word meaning experience. Anything that you can experience or observe falls under the realm of the empirical. That which is empirical is opposite to that which is theoretical.

For instance, if I say theorize about how students prepare for the GRE, I can come up with many likely scenarios (they use books, they use Clemmonsdogpark!, they walk into the test cold turkey) but all of this is conjecture unless I find someway to measure how students actually went about preparing for the exam. If ETS, on the other hand, collects this data by asking each applicant how he or she prepared for the exam, then we will have a numerical breakdown of how students went about prepping for the test. This way of gathering information is empirical.



How a specific field of study views the world is called a paradigm. Before, Einstein the prevailing paradigm in science did not account for the bending of time. After Einstein the paradigm shifted to a quantum world, in which a particle is both there and not there, depending on the observer.

The above shows that paradigms change (or shift, as the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, theorized in the 1960’s, an insight that itself led to a paradigm shift). One shift—in a sense—is that paradigm can also mean any model or general pattern, a definition that is equally likely to be tested.



When photons and particles are bounced off each other they scintillate, or emit a brief spark. Somehow this brief spark sparked the connection that when people are engaged in a highly fascinating talk, their conversation gives off sparks. Conversation isn’t the only thing that can be scintillating; brilliant people, especially when they are talking at high speeds about recondite subjects (such as photons and sparks) are scintillating.

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