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Oct. 25, 2011

Why Names Matter

by Sam Flatow

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Ok scientists, huddle up. You guys are doing great out there: Higgs bosons, stem cells, iPhones – it’s all good stuff. I’m sure the jet packs are coming soon.

But there’s something you need to start taking seriously – names. Yeah, the name is probably the least important part of any invention or discovery, but it still needs some attention. Every time someone uses Newtons as a measurement of force, all I can think of is a bunch fruit-cakes flying out of a cannon.

I mean look at poor Uranus, it’s a celestial joke. Its discoverer, William Herschel, just didn’t feel like putting in that extra effort on a name, so he just called it ‘Georgium Sidus,’ after King George III. Of course, scientists outside of England waved their hands, went “phooey,” and started making up their own names. I’m sure there was much giggling when a German scientist suggested Uranus, and while Herschel whined “stop it guys, that’s not funny,” a different German discovered a new element and promptly called it uranium specifically to reinforce Uranus instead of George. I hope you’re laughing, because I’m trying not to. Uranus is Greek, the only planet that doesn’t have a Roman name. It should be Caelus. But no, you guys think it’s some kind of game and now nobody can talk about Uranus without a brief internal monologue about maturity.

The Very Large Telescope is another terrible name – it sounds like the title of a bad children’s book. You know the plot: a giant telescope that all the other telescopes made fun of until – I don’t know – a shoe-polish factory catches on fire, and then Timmy the Very Large Telescope spots it and alerts everyone to avoid getting tragically smudged.

Do people believe you when you tell them you work at a place called the Very Large Telescope? Do they respond, “yeah, and I work at the really big binoculars”?

Even worse, there’s also the Very Large Array (VLA). Come on guys, really? That’s a whole new level of lazy. You’ve used the same terrible name twice. So, instead of dealing with the problem yourself, you want someone else to do it for you. Your plan for for a contest to rename the Very Large Array isn’t fooling anyone – we all know you’re passing the buck. Does it deserve a new name? Yeah. Should we let the cyber public name it? That’s probably a bad idea. If I know anything about Internet culture, the new name will either be misspelled, profanity, Stephen Colbert, or all of them. (No, I don’t know how that would work. Maybe the Colbutt Aray or something.)

Oh, and all instances of the word “science” should be replaced with “SCIENCE!” All caps, exclamation point. It’s called marketing, people. “The new issue of SCIENCE!? Holy moly, a 20 page study on sea turtle migration!” See? Now I’m excited for some scien – I mean – SCIENCE!

About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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