MCAT CARS: Celestial Bodies and Mundane Afflictions


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CARS 82: MCAT CARS: Celestial Bodies and Mundane Afflictions

Session 82

In this MCAT CARS passage about planets, pandemics, and unpredictability, we investigate the subtle nuances that bring long, mundane passages to life.

Once again, we’re joined by Jack Westin. If you haven’t yet, please sign up for his free trial sessions that come out almost every week.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

Link to the article:

https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/gone-viral

Without the modern scourge of light pollution, the ancient Greeks and Romans saw more of the heavens than we normally do, and they made stargazing a more central aspect of their culture. Following the number-loving philosopher Pythagoras, Cicero wrote that the intervals of a musical scale echo the intervals between the orbits of our solar system. The Stoics, believers in an interdependent cosmos, looked to the night sky to augur our predestined lives. Of particular interest to all these ancients was the stella erratica, or “errant star,” so called for its shifting location. (Our familiar constellations, by contrast, remain fixed in the firmament.) Romans borrowed a word from the Greeks to denote these celestial strays: planeta, or “planet.”

Derived from the verb “to wander,” the original Greek noun πλάνης was applied to more than just Mars and Saturn—in Euripides’s Bacchae, to take just one example, it refers to a “vagabond” who comes to town. Among the physicians of the ancient world, including Hippocrates himself, πλάνης could also mean “fever,” a pestilence that migrates from person to person. The Romans, of course, had their own words for disease—morbus, pestis—but they adopted this astronomical language in their own medical writings too, using the Latin cognate. In one account, planeta refers to a fever with an “unrestrained onset.” In another, planetae are those illnesses that obey neither finite duration nor predictable prognosis.

According to the lexicographical history of planeta that Fordham’s Matthew McGowan catalogs in the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, the same ancient word means both a celestial body and a mundane affliction. But with some creative reflection, this paradoxical pairing starts to make a little sense. Both the errant star and the roving illness shatter our attempts at a tidy ordering of the natural world around us and within us. Planets and plagues appear to move according to their own plans, not ours.

I imagine future historians will marvel at the state of language in 2020, when “virality” could simultaneously denote ironic meme culture and a global medical panic.

This Greco-Roman metaphor hints at the unpredictability we grapple with daily while the coronavirus pandemic continues to elude containment. In the absence of adequate laboratory testing, our methods of diagnosing COVID-19 sometimes remain at the level of errant guesswork—speaking for myself, I now head to the kitchen periodically to sniff aromatic tomatoes and hot sauce to check my sense of smell, hardly the pinnacle of scientific precision. And as billions of people are now learning through strict restrictions on movement, it is mankind that needs to fix itself into immobile constellations when the natural world decides to break out of its familiar orbit.

While we might find the ancient coupling of planets and pestilence jarring, our language has its own startling metaphorical bedfellows. Our word “virus” is a rich example. In ancient Latin texts, a virus is some kind of biological fluid—in Pliny the Elder, it means semen on one page and venom on another. Taking up these Roman antecedents, the English “virus,” as the Oxford English Dictionary reports, originally points to such substances, including venom but also pus and other humors. Only in the first years of the twentieth century does the modern notion of a “virus” emerge—that of a tiny pathogen that invades the living cells of other organisms.

Of course, the linguistic transfer from semen to pus to pathogen aligns with the technological developments that enabled scientists to observe something like a coronavirus in the first place. A 1915 issue of the Lancet hypothesizes that it “is quite possible that an ultra-microscopic virus” belongs among other known disease-causing agents like bacteria, which are significantly larger. As photographs in today’s newspapers confirm with the help of advanced microscopes, that earlier hypothesis has borne out, replacing the image of snake venom with one of geometric capsids.

[01:47] General Passage Overview

Typically, if a student flips to the next passage and they see a short passage, a lot of times they think it’s easy. But the shorter the passage, usually the harder the questions.

It’s more about the difficulty of the text rather than the length. So if the text is harder to read, the questions are typically easier. They’re going to ask you more general questions like what’s the main idea?

If the text is easier to read, it’s typically a little bit longer, not significantly. Not by a much, but it’s enough to where you have to really be careful and you have to really assess where things are discussed.

Location becomes more critical because the questions become more specific. So you may find that the questions are harder because you need to be very careful with what they said to a tee. You have to really pay attention.

“With the harder passages, you still want to pay attention. They don't test you on the details, but they test you on smaller points of view that are hidden in the passage.”Click To Tweet

[03:45] Paragraph 1, Sentence 1

Without the modern scourge of light pollution, the ancient Greeks and Romans saw more of the heavens than we normally do, and they made stargazing a more central aspect of their culture.

Jack says:

The author’s starting off talking about light pollution. But I think a lot of people might be confused as to what light pollution is. But it’s saying that the lack of light pollution helps the Greeks and Romans see more of the heavens and see more of the stars. Light pollution is within our cities. It’s having streetlights and house lights and everything on it lightens up the sky. It makes it harder to see the stars.

This means the ancients could stargaze. They can see the stars. So with light pollution, you probably can’t see the stars as well. That’s something that any reader especially future MCAT test takers should be able to deduce based on just one sentence.

'These sentences educate you. You have to read it carefully because if you do, you can start making those key assumptions.'Click To Tweet

[05:26] Paragraph 1, Sentence 2

Following the number-loving philosopher Pythagoras, Cicero wrote that the intervals of a musical scale echo the intervals between the orbits of our solar system.

Jack says:

They’re talking about just the stars and how it affects our lives with music and everything else. This goes back to the first sentence that said they could stargaze more without light pollution.

But the whole point of the sentence wasn’t that they can stargaze more because there’s no light pollution. But because when you stargaze, it became a more central aspect of their culture.

So they connected culture with stargazing. You can’t lose sight of the point of that sentence because that is actually going to help you understand the next sentence.

The second sentence is talking about stargazing. And in this case, the solar system and our culture, and music.

It’s connecting the two intervals of culture between the orbits of our solar system. You don’t need to really get this. It’s more of an example or evidence for that concept that you end up seeing the stars because of the lack of lights. You use it more in your culture.

[07:12] Paragraph 1, Sentence 3

The Stoics, believers in an interdependent cosmos, looked to the night sky to augur our predestined lives.

Jack says:

We’re introduced to a lot of people here. So we have the Greeks, the Romans, Pythagoras, Cicero, and now the Stoics. And it tells us who the Stoics are. You don’t need to know what it means but you could probably guess it has something to do with stars and our lives. Again, culture and the stars. So it’s still similar and going along the same lines. Augur most likely means prediction. You’re predicting something about our your destiny.

[08:12] Paragraph 1, Sentence 4

Of particular interest to all these ancients was the stella erratica, or “errant star,” so called for its shifting location.

Jack says:

Still talking about stars, nothing new here.

[08:39] Paragraph 1, Sentence 5

(Our familiar constellations, by contrast, remain fixed in the firmament.)

Jack says:

These errant stars are shifting locations. Whereas, our familiar constellations are fixed. And firmament just means the heavens, the sky.

[09:18] Paragraph 1, Sentence 6

Romans borrowed a word from the Greeks to denote these celestial strays: planeta, or “planet.”

Jack says:

The Romans called it a planet. The key here is to realize that there’s something fixed. And there’s something that’s shifting locations. Basically, something’s going on where we’re creating this new term to explain this phenomena.

[10:12] Paragraph 2, Sentence 1

Derived from the verb “to wander,” the original Greek noun πλάνης was applied to more than just Mars and Saturn—in Euripides’s Bacchae, to take just one example, it refers to a “vagabond” who comes to town.

Jack says:

So we’re still discussing the planet. Planet is derived from the word to wander. Euripides referred to it as vagabond. So planets are wandering. They’re moving around. They’re not actually stars, but that’s how they interpreted them back in the day.

[11:51] Paragraph 2, Sentence 2

Among the physicians of the ancient world, including Hippocrates himself, πλάνης could also mean “fever,” a pestilence that migrates from person to person.

Jack says:

We went from talking about moving stars as planets. And now we’re calling them fevers. The planets are also considered fevers. We’re still on the idea of planet, the word planet. The definition is simply changing a little bit. We went from talking about it as to wander to vagabond, which we don’t really need to know, to now fever. So planet has all of these different meanings in this case.

[13:01] Paragraph 2, Sentence 3

The Romans, of course, had their own words for disease—morbus, pestis—but they adopted this astronomical language in their own medical writings too, using the Latin cognate.

Jack says:

Again, planet is used in these different ways.

[13:34] Paragraph 2, Sentence 4

In one account, planeta refers to a fever with an “unrestrained onset.”

Jack says:

It’s giving us a specific example here of that planeta. The errant star that the Romans called planeta and it just happens randomly.

[14:06] Paragraph 2, Sentence 5

In another, planetae are those illnesses that obey neither finite duration nor predictable prognosis.

Jack says:

What we share with the word planet is the idea that it’s random. It’s errant. It’s erratic. So the planets are shifting locations. But so are these these fevers, whatever they are. They’re random. They’re shifting locations. So it seems like it makes sense to use the word planet to describe both of them.

[15:19] Paragraph 3, Sentence 1

According to the lexicographical history of planeta that Fordham’s Matthew McGowan catalogs in the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, the same ancient word means both a celestial body and a mundane affliction.

Jack says:

Now we’re getting into the actual, strict definitions of what this planet means. Basically, this guy and the expert, Matthew McGowan says that planeta was used for two different things, celestial body and mundane affliction.

[16:35] Paragraph 3, Sentence 2

But with some creative reflection, this paradoxical pairing starts to make a little sense.

Jack says:

Paradoxical pairing was celestial body and mundane affliction. And that was the whole fever and the planets.

[17:12] Paragraph 3, Sentence 3

Both the errant star and the roving illness shatter our attempts at a tidy ordering of the natural world around us and within us.

Jack says:

The author is talking about our attempts at a tidy ordering, and we have this planet that’s moving around.  This errant star, this fever is not obeying what we normally see.

[17:46] Paragraph 3, Sentence 4

Planets and plagues appear to move according to their own plans, not ours.

Jack says:

Plants and plagues moving quickly to their plans, and not to the tidy ordering that we want.

[18:11] Paragraph 4, Sentence 1

This Greco-Roman metaphor hints at the unpredictability we grapple with daily while the coronavirus pandemic continues to elude containment.

Jack says:

So it is an article about the pandemic. The author is using this story of where planets come from comes from the word planet. And just saying it’s interesting how it’s just unpredictable. And it’s tied to the pandemic.

[18:46] Paragraph 4, Sentence 2

In the absence of adequate laboratory testing, our methods of diagnosing COVID-19 sometimes remain at the level of errant guesswork—speaking for myself, I now head to the kitchen periodically to sniff aromatic tomatoes and hot sauce to check my sense of smell, hardly the pinnacle of scientific precision.

Jack says:

The author here is writing about just how we don’t have adequate laboratory testing, and how diagnosing this COVID-19 is to the level of just guessing. He’s going in smelling stuff just to make sure he still has it.

It’s at the top have our mind now because it’s active. If you’ve been watching the news, you know that some people who got COVID lost their sense of smell. So this is the way the author’s trying to explain it by suggesting that we don’t know how to diagnose it.

It’s unpredictable to the point that you have to now smell tomatoes to see if you can even smell anymore to make sure you don’t have this disease.

So the way you could catch that without actually knowing it is again, by noticing it as the methods of diagnosing COVID. This is probably one way you can diagnose yourself, which Jack obviously doesn’t recommend.

You should go to the doctor if you have any kind of symptoms. But, in this case, this is how the author described it. 

So don’t get lost in this fluff. The point this paragraph is trying to make is that whether it’s a planet or a disease, like the pandemic we’re going through, it’s unpredictable.

[21:22] Paragraph 4, Sentence 3

And as billions of people are now learning through strict restrictions on movement, it is mankind that needs to fix itself into immobile constellations when the natural world decides to break out of its familiar orbit.

Jack says:

The author is now talking about our kind of shelter in place, the safer at home rules where we just have to stay put, so we don’t catch this COVID-19 right. It’s very ironic. We’re studying all this stuff. Now we’re mobile. But again, this is a point you wouldn’t catch if you’re not from this era.

'A lot of the articles that you're going to read are boring because you're not going to catch the nuances of the conversation.'Click To Tweet

In some ways, we’re time travelers when we read these really long mundane passages. We have to start sensing where the author is going and what the author is trying to say. And that’s without necessarily getting lost in the minutiae and the things that don’t really make a difference to us at the end of the day.

[22:50] Paragraph 5, Sentence 1

While we might find the ancient coupling of planets and pestilence jarring, our language has its own startling metaphorical bedfellows.

Jack says:

The author is probably showing us how this could happen to our own kind of language, not necessarily the Greek or Latin one, but from our own perspective. We’ll see if there’s any similarity here. “Bedfellows” just means bedmates.

[23:38] Paragraph 5, Sentence 2

Our word “virus” is a rich example. In ancient Latin texts, a virus is some kind of biological fluid—in Pliny the Elder, it means semen on one page and venom on another.

Jack says:

The author is talking about Latin here, where a lot of our language comes from the word virus. It’s referred to as just a biological fluid. It’s not specifically how we use a virus now. And it gives two different examples of what virus means in this one book.

[24:23] Paragraph 5, Sentence 3

Taking up these Roman antecedents, the English “virus,” as the Oxford English Dictionary reports, originally points to such substances, including venom but also pus and other humors.

Jack says:

The Romans now are talking about what what virus meant to them in this old Oxford English Dictionary.

[24:50] Paragraph 5, Sentence 4

Only in the first years of the twentieth century does the modern notion of a “virus” emerge—that of a tiny pathogen that invades the living cells of other organisms.

Jack says:

We have the first years of the 20th century, which is when we could actually start thinking about viruses and seeing viruses eventually.

The point of this paragraph is that virus had different meanings. And now, it’s changing. That’s etymology for you. Words have different meanings over time. We have words today, that don’t make any sense if you actually think about it.

[25:38] Paragraph 6, Sentence 1

Of course, the linguistic transfer from semen to pus to pathogen aligns with the technological developments that enabled scientists to observe something like a coronavirus in the first place.

Jack says:

The author is pointing out that our language was shaped when we could actually see this thing. So our technology is in some ways is changing the word.

[25:58] Paragraph 6, Sentence 2

A 1915 issue of the Lancet hypothesizes that it “is quite possible that an ultra-microscopic virus” belongs among other known disease-causing agents like bacteria, which are significantly larger.

Jack says:

1915 is when they first apparently started hypothesizing this or what a viruses without seeing it. It’s evidence of technology that is shifting the definition or the meaning of a virus.

[26:42] Paragraph 6, Sentence 3

As photographs in today’s newspapers confirm with the help of advanced microscopes, that earlier hypothesis has borne out, replacing the image of snake venom with one of geometric capsids.

Jack says:

The snake venom is going back to the ancient Latin definition of what a virus is to now that of these geometric capsules, these viruses and what they look like.

[27:10] Main Idea

These last couple parts of the passage are really random. But in some ways, they’re similar because it’s showing us how the words evolve. So there isn’t much to be gained in that last couple of paragraphs.

The biggest part is the fact that you can use the celestial kind of cosmology and medical terminology. They intersect in some ways and that’s really the point the author is trying to make.

But don’t get lost, if the last couple of paragraphs shift and they start talking about something totally different. It could happen and it does happen, but typically, if the MCAT does this, they won’t make it more than a paragraph long where they deviate off-course.

The AAMC test writers are probably trying to make points from each article. They want to make sure you get those points. Although they may not be purposely doing that.

“When they pick out these articles, they're picking it out in a way where there are at least four or five different points that you need to know.”Click To Tweet

They could make it longer by adding extra paragraphs that aren’t necessary. But ultimately, they’re finding it all from one source. 

So it’s basically like cutting a snap. It’s like a snapshot of a movie or they’re making a cut off of a book or an article. And that’s what we’re doing here. We cut off the articles to the points that we really care about. And when they do that, there are some lingering ideas or paragraphs that don’t really matter.

So realize that’s there, but they’re not doing it on purpose. They may have to do it to meet some kind of length requirement.

Links:

Meded Media

Jack Westin

Link to the article:

https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/gone-viral

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