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affecting science, medicine and the environment | MIND

The Names Scientists Coin as Jokes Can Have Serious Consequences

November 02, 2000|K.C. COLE

Anyone who's been stuck with a stupid nickname knows how it can grate for life.

My mother thought it would be cute to call a baby by initials, and so I've been laboring under K.C. ever since--despite sporadic efforts to restore my good name(s).

My only revenge is that other members of my family are known variously as Wizzie, Boscar, Bidley, Mirp and Uncle Do Do.

Alas, the same thing happens in science. Sometimes, with much more far-reaching results.

Take Big Bang, for example. The term originated with Fred Hoyle, who attached it to a bizarre theory on the origin of the universe--a theory so clearly wrong, he thought it laughable. "Big Bang" was meant to be sarcastic; a pointed, if nasty, joke.

Of course, these days the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe is considered the crowning achievement of cosmology. The theory has been so successful, astronomers say, that it explains the creation of elements, the expansion of space, the shape of the universe itself. They even study its lingering echoes to determine the antics of newly forming atoms as long as 15 billion years ago.

Poor Hoyle! The term he heard as a discouraging word now is used with a straight (even reverent) face to describe a pillar of science.

Jokes get taken seriously, in fact, all too often in science. When physicist Murray Gell-Mann saw a pattern in hundreds of species of subatomic particles that seemed to naturally group them into families of eight, he dubbed it the Eightfold Way. He insists now that he didn't have the tao of physics in mind. "It was a joke!" he protests. But that doesn't stop people from associating Gell-Mann's groupings of quarks with Eastern mysticism, even today.

You'd think physicists would have learned to restrain such clever coining of terms. But no. Now we have "the god particle." You might rightly wonder just what's so holy about this particular chunk of vibrating empty space (which is what the more appropriately named "Higgs boson" most closely approximates).

True, the current search for this hard-to-pin-down particle is considered extremely important to physics. But why "the god particle"? Because, explains Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, his publisher wouldn't allow him to call it something else--a term the publisher deemed offensive, even in jest.

Some of these attempts by physicists to crack jokes have big, unintended consequences. Like it or not, they can steer us in the wrong direction. Big Bang is a good example. The term implies some kind of explosion. So people often understandably ask: Where did the Big Bang happen? After all, explosions normally occur at a particular time and place, so they are not all that hard to pin down.

But since the Big Bang created space and time along with the rest of the universe, the question has no meaning. The Big Bang happened everywhere, for all time.

Einstein had an even worse problem with his theory of relativity--which he liked to call his theory of invariants. Relativity is fundamentally about the fact that the underlying laws of nature don't change, no matter what; they are invariant to transformation. This means that appearances are often relative. But relativity is the theory's secondary, not central, teaching.

So to interpret relativity as "everything is relative" is almost precisely the opposite of its true meaning--which is that fundamental things are absolute.

Of course, the physicists--like parents--have to call their progeny something, I suppose. And people will call things (and people) names.

Still, I can say from personal experience that it's a lot easier to have a name that doesn't always need to be explained or interpreted.

(And by the way: It's Karen Christine.)

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