To quote the American astronomist Janna Levin, “ambiguity is very interesting in writing; it's not very interesting in science.” In other words, what can be done to prevent or minimize the ambiguities of natural language from corrupting the precision of mathematics and science? This is where terminology can help: by providing a set of agreed definitions, concepts and terms in specific fields, it can reduce the level of ambiguity associated with words and sentences.
Electrotechnology is one of these fields. Experts in different countries around the world need to avoid ambiguity as much as possible when devising new electrotechnical devices and systems and especially when developing international standards.
e-tech caught up with Luca Mari, Chair of IEC Technical Committee (TC) 1, to find out the latest developments. “In our increasingly complex world, having a single, homogenous, well-established, harmonized body of knowledge related to terminology for the whole electrotechnical community is very important. IEC TC 1 is a horizontal TC which provides harmonization for all the terminology used by the various other TCs inside the IEC.”
The reach of terminology, in his view, is often misunderstood. “Terminology conveys the implicit message that it only deals with terms. But it is way more than that: it is about definitions as well as terms, and to agree on definitions we need to agree on concepts and meaning in order to understand each other.”
Available for free and constantly updated
This harmonized body of knowledge maintained by IEC TC 1 is the IEV or Electropedia. “Years ago, the IEC took the decision to make it freely available on the web so that anybody can consult it. Anyone at any moment can make a request for updating any single entry in the Electropedia and we validate it, technically, semantically and make sure it is harmonized with all the other entries. This allows the whole IEC community to keep the IEV as up-to-date as possible.”
This crucial body of work is of great use to the whole IEC community but plans are afoot to make it more easily accessible to a wider audience. “We have sent a questionnaire to our members to ask them whether they agree that we should work towards expanding the intended users of the Electropedia to include people who are not directly involved in standardization work, teachers, students and translators, for instance.”
Prior to sending the questionnaire, a survey was conducted to find out what users think of the online tool. “500 people took part in the survey and they suggested a number of incremental changes. One of them was to make it more accessible to new types of users. Other suggestions comprised adding more examples and more references to external sources. This survey is part of a global push we made together with Technical Officer Joanna Goodwin to revive the strategy of TC 1.”
An ongoing project is to provide a new generation Electropedia based on more recent technology. “We are looking at systems which are less vocabulary and more concept-oriented. One would still be able to find terms and definitions but the structure of the concepts behind these words and definitions would be more explicit. This would enable users to browse the Electropedia content in a more conceptual and efficient way. For instance, they could ask for all the examples of a given concept.”
Working with metrology experts
Inside the Joint Committee for Guides and Metrology (JCGM), IEC cooperates with ISO, le Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM), the International Organization of Legal Metrology (OIML) and other international organizations on the International Vocabulary of Metrology (VIM). “The JCGM was created around 20 years ago based on the idea that something in common should be and could be exploited in metrology and lead to producing guidance documents about fundamental concepts of measurement. Everybody needs good reliable measurement results whether talking about electrotechnology, astronomy, quality management, for instance.” Mari is one of the experts appointed by IEC in the international working group (WG) which produces the VIM since one of his other areas of expertise alongside terminology is the science of measurement. “I have two different roles but one feeds the other, so to speak.”
The WG is currently working on the first draft of the fourth edition of the VIM which needs to be constantly updated. The recent decision of the BIPM member states to revise the International System of Units (SI) which changes the world’s definitions of the kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin and the mole, is impacting the work on the VIM, as well as the Electropedia. “The statements by which the units are defined need to be carefully reviewed before being included in the Electropedia”, agrees IEC Technical Officer Joanna Goodwin.
The world is changing at a more rapid pace than ever and metrology and terminology are keeping up with the times, especially where electrotechnology is concerned.