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A glossary of science-related words.

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B cells

The cells of the immune system that make antibodies against invading pathogens.

back spatter

Material that is ejected from a gunshot wound.


An explosive surge in a fire produced by the sudden mixing of air with other combustible gases.


(Singular: bacterium) Single-celled microorganisms that have no nucleus.


The study of bacteria.

bacteriophage (phage)

A virus that infects bacteria.


A free-living microscopic organism that ingests bacteria either as a food source or as a source of energy.


A phylum of bacteria. A large percentage of the species of bacteria found in the large intestine belong to this phylum.

balanced forces

Forces are balanced when the forces pushing (or pulling) an object in one direction are the same size as the forces acting in the opposite direction.


A scientific instrument used to measure atmospheric pressure.

basal cells

Small, round cells found in the lower part – the base – of the epidermis.


A type of rock that contains a lot of iron but not much silica. Can form spectacular columns on cooling. Associated with volcanic fields such as Auckland or Whāngārei.

base pair

One of the pairs of chemical bases in a DNA or RNA molecule, for example, cytosine and guanine.

baseline survey

A survey that looks at a particular time or under a particular set of conditions to establish a baseline to compare subsequent surveys to.


In geology, this means a depression of large size that may be caused by erosion or earth movements. Often you can’t see a basin on the surface as it has become filled in with other sediments.


A combination of electrolytic cells that enables chemical energy to be transformed into electrical energy.

BCG vaccine

Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) is a vaccine against tuberculosis. It is prepared from a strain of the attenuated (weakened) live bovine tuberculosis bacillus that has lost its virulence in humans by being specially cultured for years in an artificial medium.


In navigation, bearing refers to which way you are facing. A system of reference used to describe this is the cardinal directions on a compass (N, S, W, E). Points that seldom move can also be used, for example, stars, mountains or lighthouses.


1. Not cancerous. Mild and non-progressive. Benign cells are not able to spread elsewhere in the body. 2. Not harmful.

benign tumour

A tumour that is not cancerous. Benign means not malignant.


Bottom-dwelling; describing the flora and fauna found on the bottom of a sea or lake.


A type of clay that is rich in the mineral montmorillonite, generally formed from the weathering of volcanic ash.

beta particle

High-energy electron emitted during certain nuclear decay processes.


A lens in which both surfaces curve outwards.

Big Bang

This theory describes that the universe originated approximately 14 billion years ago from a violent explosion of a very small concentration of matter of extremely high density and temperature.

binocular vision

Vision in which both eyes are used together.


This is the accumulation of substances such as heavy metals, pesticides or other toxic chemicals in an organism. These substances can accumulate through the food web.


A material that, when introduced into the body, is capable of reacting with it in such a way that it becomes chemically bonded.


An experiment designed to measure the effects of a substance on a living organism.


The amount of a chemical that is able to be absorbed by a living organism.


One group of advanced ceramics often used to replace hard material in the body like bone.


Any organic compound involved in living processes, for example, a protein, carbohydrate or lipid.

biochemical limestone

A sedimentary rock formed from broken-up, calcium carbonate-rich skeletons (shells) of once-living marine organisms that have been cemented together.

biochemical reaction

A chemical reaction taking place in a biological system, for example, in soil formation, the combination of living organisms (such as plants and animals) and chemicals (such as acids from rain or nutrient decay) that break down rock.


A scientist who works in the field of how chemical processes occur in living things.


A branch of science that studies how chemical processes occur in living things.

bioclastic limestone

Limestone containing skeletal fragments of marine organisms such as bryozoans and molluscs.


The ability of a surgical or dental implant to exist in the body with no adverse effect.


Using one living organism to reduce the numbers of another, for example, using the rabbit haemorrhagic virus to control rabbit numbers.


The ability of a substance to break down in the environment into harmless compounds.


The chemical destruction of organic compounds by microorganisms.


Finding chemicals within organisms that could have potential human health and nutrition applications.


The range of species found in a particular region. It is generally thought that the more species that exist, the higher biodiversity, and the more likely it is that an ecosystem will survive episodes of change.


A fuel whose energy is produced from a renewable material of plant or animal origin.


A scientist who studies the interactions of chemical, geological and biological processes in the natural environment.


A branch of science that studies the relationship between the geochemistry of a region and the animal and plant life in that region.


A species used to monitor the health of an environment or ecosystem.


A material that, when introduced into the body, does not react in any way with the body’s environment.

biological control

Using living organisms, or viruses, to control the numbers and spread of pest species.

biological diversity

The variety of species within a given ecosystem, biome or for the entire Earth.


The science of living things.


A biological indicator of a chemical.


1. Organic matter, such as trees, plants, reject fruit, straw, algae, dairy effluent or tallow (waste fat), which can be turned into biofuel. 2. The mass of living biological organisms in a given area or ecosystem at a given time.


The process by which living organisms produce minerals, often to harden or stiffen existing tissues. Marine invertebrates such as pāua grow a protective shell based on mineral forms of calcium carbonate.


The study of the interaction of biological materials with photons. It involves the use of light to excite biological material followed by analysis of any remaining reflected or transmitted light.


The branch of biology that applies the methods of physics to the study of biological structures and processes.


A plastic material that is either biodegradable or derived from renewable resources or both.


The process of removing a small amount of tissue from living patients for diagnostic examination.


The process of preventing, detecting and controlling unwanted pests and diseases.


All living things on Earth and their environment.


The use of fossils to work out the relative order of rock strata.


The study of the variation and evolution of a population of organisms in relation to their taxonomic classification.


The animal and plant life of a particular area, habitat or geological time period.


The acronym for the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (Bureau International des Poids et Mesures).

bipolar disorder

A type of depression that means the person alternates between a normal mood, feeling very depressed and feeling very elated. There are many variations of this disorder.


Transparent crystals of minerals such as calcite interact with an incident light ray, splitting it into two refracted rays. This results in the appearance of two images.


Any mollusc, such a as mussel or cockle, that has a shell with two hinged shell halves.

black hole

A small object in space with huge mass and so much gravity that even light can’t escape.

black smoker

Underwater mineral chimneys that look like giant thin termite mounds and grow up to several metres high. They are created when hot water, or hydrothermal fluid, passes through the sub-sea floor and dissolves the host rock, which is full of minerals. When the hydrothermal fluid is expelled on the sea floor, it mixes with the cold seawater, and the minerals that were previously dissolved in the hot water start depositing out to form mineral-laden chimneys. Plumes of hot water and minerals pour out the tops of these chimneys like black smoke. The minerals dissolved in the hydrothermal fluid are then either deposited within these black smoker chimneys, or spread further afield as plumes transported by currents, depositing on the sea floor various metals including iron, zinc, copper, manganese, lead, gold and silver.

blood vessel

Any of the vessels, as arteries, veins, or capillaries, through which the blood circulates.

body mass index (BMI)

A measure of weight adjusted for height used to classify adults as overweight or obese. It is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in metres squared.


A rounded mass of food formed in the mouth in preparation for swallowing.


A subdivision of tephra (ash). Refers to material ejected from a volcano that is larger than 64 mm in diameter.


A specialised form of connective tissue. The presence of the mineral hydroxyapatite helps to give bone its strength and density.

bone china

A type of pottery similar to porcelain. The ingredients needed to make it are kaolin clay, feldspar minerals, fine silica sand and the ashes of cow bone.

bone marrow

The soft, fatty, vascular tissue that fills most bone cavities and is the source of red blood cells and many white blood cells.


A scientist who studies plants.


A term to describe the intestines. The term ‘large bowel’ is sometimes used to describe the colon and rectum.


Slightly salty.


A family of flowering plants (Angiospermae) also known as crucifers, mustard family or cabbage family.


The tubes that lead into the lungs from the windpipe (trachea).


A non-vascular land plant, most of which are 1–2 cm high. Bryophytes include mosses, liverworts and hornworts.


A type of largely marine water-dwelling invertebrate organism with a hard calcium carbonate outer casing. They band together to form colonies with an enormous range of shapes and sizes.


A circuit component used to transform electrical energy into light energy. Heat energy is also formed in this process.


Vegetative outgrowth found on the upper side of some fern fronds (for example, the hen and chickens fern). The bulbils can grow into new individuals, which are clones of their parent.


A short-chain fatty acid produced in the large intestine as a result of bacterial fermentation of undigested carbohydrate.