One of the paybacks of being a scientist is that if you create some new thing or discover a new phenomenon, you get to name it. Biologists can name a new species after friends or family, experimenters enjoy finding clever acronyms to call their equipment, and astronomers have the opportunity to etch their choices into the heavens.
But scientists are human, humans are weird, and this freedom means that we have wound up with some weird and silly names for things ranging from planets to particles.
By any other name…
Discovering a new species of plant or animal is an exciting time for any biologist, and it gives them the exclusive right to choose the scientific (a.k.a Latin or binomial) name for that species. Scientists might exercise their creativity, or name the species after a loved one, celebrity, or David Attenborough.
Exercising their creativity, many biologists have come up with amusing names for organisms including Phthiria relativitae, Pieza rhea, Gelae bean, and Spongiforma squarepantsii. But some just got lazy.
The scientific name of the western gorilla is Gorilla gorilla, the American bison is Bison bison, and the boa constrictor is Boa constrictor. You have to wonder whether the scientists had just decided to give up trying.
Then again. Given how dangerous those animals are, the scientist may have been calling for help.
The world of subatomic particles is full of weird quantum phenomena, but particle physicists decided to give many of the particles weird names too.
As the atom was beginning to be understood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scientists gave sensible names to the bits they were finding. Electron, proton, neutron. But in the psychedelic decades following World War Two, names got weird.
As the structure of the atom was probed deeper, physicists realised that protons and neutrons were themselves made of even smaller particles. Each proton and neutron is composed of three even more fundamental building blocks of matter. Because these little particles came in threes, Murry Gell-Mann, who proposed this model, called them quarks after the line in the book Finnegans Wake that reads “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” The two different types of quarks in these bundles of three got called up and down following the notation convention used to denote them mathematically.
Then things got strange. In the detectors at the end of particle accelerators, physicists began to find a zoo of particles that could not be explained using these up and down quarks. These particles behaved strangely. That is, they took strange paths through the detectors that didn’t fit with known particles. The physicists, descriptively, called this property strangeness.
After years of head scratching, Gell-Mann and George Zweig eventually realised that the strangeness was caused by a third type of quark, which came to be called the strange quark. Quarks come in pairs, so when the strange quark’s partner was found, it became called the charm quark.
When a third pair of quarks were discovered years later, some physicists pushed to call them truth and beauty, but the majority of particle physicists had sobered up by then and settled on the names top and bottom.
But the weird names have not gone away entirely. As physicists attempt to explain dark matter, weird particles named weird things such as WIMPS, WISPS and winos have been proposed. I think we’ll be seeing weird particle names for a long time to come.
Coming up with good acronyms and initialisms is a matter of pride across science and technology fields. I know that the leaders of the LHC’s ATLAS experiment are very pleased with their name and take some satisfaction that is it better than the name of their sister experiment CMS. Scientists love a good acronym, but astronomers seem to have given up thinking of imaginative or inspiring names.
The trend seems to have started in the 1970s with the imaginatively named Very Large Array radio telescope in the U.S. Since then, the Very Large Telescope has been constructed atop a mounting in Chile and has become the most scientifically productive optical telescope on the planet.
In the coming years, astronomers are looking forward to the construction of the Square Kilometre Array, the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the Extremely Large Telescope.
Personally, I’m looking forward to the names of the next generation of telescopes.
Astronomy literally means star naming. But thanks to a chequered history with naming their discoveries sensibly, astronomers are now only allowed to name things with the permission of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The story starts with Uranus. (And that was the sensible choice of name.)
Before telescopes came along, astronomers only knew of five planets. They are known by different names in different cultures, but the Latin names have persisted into modern English. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These bright points of light stood out to our ancestors because they can be seen to move across the sky from night to night. Uranus is visible to the naked eye, but it orbits the Sun so slowly that our ancestors never noticed it was a planet.
Uranus was discovered by accident in 1781 by the astronomer Sir William Herschel. As was custom, Herschel was invited to name it. In honour of his patron, King George the Third, Herschel chose to call it Georgium Sidus, Latin for George’s Star. The rest of the world, in particular the French, took a thorough disliking to what amounted to an attempt to extend the British Empire to the heavens and, through a concerted effort over more than 70 years, managed to make Uranus, the next in line from the pantheon of classical gods, the widely accepted name. It has been the butt of astronomy jokes ever since.
The Uranus fiasco hadn’t even been put to rest when another mere mortal attempted to put his name up amongst the gods. Le Verrier was a French astronomer who, noticing small perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, calculated that yet another planet was hiding unseen even further out in space. With the help of German astronomers, the new planet was found exactly where Le Verrier calculated it should be. Le Verrier is not remembered as a modest chap, even in France, and tried to get the new planet to be called Le Verrier, and even resorted to calling Uranus Georgium Sidus in order to try and give his choice of name some precedent. Eventually, the consensus won and Neptune was added to the list.
After this, astronomy entered a period of naming things sensibly, but that was nearly undone by the discovery of everyone’s favourite not-a-planet, Pluto, in 1930. The astronomers who discovered it first asked Constance Lowell, the widow of Percival Lowell who had started the search for Pluto and funded the observatory after his death, to suggest a name. After suggesting a variety of unsuitable names including Percival and Constance, the astronomers stopped asking Constance and settled on Pluto, a name suggested by an 11 year old English school girl.
I, for one, am thankful that peer pressure gave us sensible names for the planets. If it hadn’t, in school we would have learned that the outer solar system is populated by the planets Jupiter, Saturn, George, Le Verrier, and Percy. We also wouldn’t get to enjoy Uranus jokes.
The discovery of new major planets (and Pluto) grab the attention of every astronomer, and tensions about how they should be named run high. But less prestigious discoveries can sneak past the filter. Since the 1980s, thousands of individual asteroids have been discovered and named, on occasion, by amateur astronomers working from their backyard. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, this caused a great proliferation of silly names in the heavens. Astronomers took the opportunity to name asteroids after friends, family members, pets, and fictional characters. We have asteroids such as James Bond, Tomhanks, and Monty Python. One of my favourites is the asteroid Mr Spock, which is not directly named after the TV character, but after the astronomer’s cat.
Thanks to this silliness, the IAU now only allows astronomers to suggest names, which it then verifies. Because of these restrictions, astronomers who want to ensure that their chosen name gets accepted must be careful to meet the IAU’s requirements. When the New Horizons probe flew past Pluto in 2015, the mission team went into a frenzy of naming surface features such as craters and mountains. To keep the IAU happy, the team picked a space and exploration theme for their names, and named regions, mountains, craters, and other features after astronomers, explorers, and spacecraft. Dark regions on the surface of Pluto were named after creatures of the underworld, which is appropriate for Pluto.
However, for Pluto’s largest moon, Charon (which almost got called Char after the astronomer’s wife), the team decided to have a bit more fun and chose a scifi and fantasy theme. They named the dark region around Charon’s north pole the Mordor Macula. To the south, the Tardis Chasma crosses the Gallifrey Macula, and below that we find the Vulcan Planum. The moon is pockmarked with craters named Vader, Skywalker, Spock, and Kirk. The IAU have verified some of the names the New Horizons team suggested for features on Pluto, but we still haven’t heard what they have to say about Charon.
Even some of the units scientists use to measure things got given weird names.
The barn is a unit of area that emerged from nuclear physics during World War Two. As physicists laboured to understand the uranium atom and construct the atomic bomb, the cross sectional area of a uranium atom became an important measure. Equal to 10-28 m2, the scientists called this a barn in reference to the popular phrase, “you couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.”
The barn unit is still used by high energy physicists. Smaller divisions of this unit have been named as well. An outhouse is one millionth of a barn, while a shed is one million million million millionth of a barn, but these are not really used.
Another weird unit from nuclear physics that doesn’t seem to have lived on as well as the barn has is the shake, in reference to “two shakes of a lamb’s tail”, which is the typical time taken for one step in a nuclear chain reaction to occur, or 10 nanoseconds.
These weird and imaginative (or unimaginative) names add to the richness of the scientific landscape, but I do sometimes wonder if Naming Stuff 101 should be a compulsory course for scientists in training.