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Example sentences:

Incubate the solution at room temperature for 30 min.

Mix by vortexing and let sit for 10 min at room temperature.

Are these two expressions fully synonymous? Can "incubate" be used with solutions that contain no living organisms, or does it always imply that something living is being maintained or propagated under the mentioned conditions, per Wiktionary's sense 1:

(transitive) To brood, raise, or maintain eggs, organisms, or living tissue through the provision of ideal environmental conditions.

Can one use use "incubate for 10 minutes", say, when describing a drug preparation procedure, in which the drug substance is inanimate matter?

As an aside, what are other widely-used alternatives to "let sit for 10 min"?

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  • I would extend and qualify the definition "...ideal environmental conditions which the unadjusted ambient environment does not provide", agreeing with ColleenV. Jul 24 '16 at 15:32
  • For example, if a certain lizard's eggs would hatch if left sitting in the sun, we would not say that we were incubating them if all we were doing was leaving them out to sit in the sun. Incubating requires the provision of an ideal environment not the same as the normal ambient environment, such as the crocodile's nest of rotting vegetation which heats up, or birds sitting on the eggs, or the laboratory incubation chamber. Jul 24 '16 at 15:40
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incubate comes from the latin word incubare, which means to lie upon something. The term was originally used when hens sit upon their eggs to keep them at the right temperature so that they hatch.

These days incubation is done by machines, and these same machines can be used to promote other biological or chemical processes. The meaning now revolves around creating an ideal environment for the process.

It could be applied to something non-living where a chemical reaction takes place, as long as it involves creating the right conditions for the reaction, rather than simply allowing it to stand.

If no special environmental conditions are required, let it stand might be more appropriate.

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I would not use incubate as a synonym for "let sit/stand". To me incubate means you've adjusted the environment (temperature, humidity, etc.) so that something will grow. Incubate can be used for something inanimate, like a "business incubator", but it has to be something capable of "growing" and the process has to have adjusted the environment somehow to promote that growth.

Letting something stand at room temperature for a while to cool off or to allow a chemical reaction to complete isn't what I would associate with incubation.

An alternative to "let sit" would be "let rest", but it's typically used for situations where something is being "worked" in cooking, like letting dough rise after kneading it. You can also say "allow it to come to room temperature", but that's typically only if the temperature will change by letting something sit (it cools or warms).

Here are some examples from the definition of "room temperature"

Just be sure to allow it to come to room temperature if it has been refrigerated.
Let rest for 10 minutes at room temperature, and then mix all ingredients together.

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In the context you described, "incubate" means to maintain at a specific temperature (more rarely, this definition includes other kinds of environmental control, such as humidity). The temperature required should be implied or specified in the recipe.

"Incubate" is slightly different from "let sit/settle", "set aside", "ignore" etc , because maintaining the temperature (and other conditions?) is a critical part of the recipe. Room temperature is typically 72 degrees.

In your case, because both instructions call for holding the solution at room temperature, both sentences are synonymous. As you seem to suspect, however, sometimes the meanings are indeed different.

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