Wednesday, 10 July 2013

What's in a name?

There is a problem with physics. I only became consciously aware of it last week when I was browsing through the arXiv in my research area, but it's something that has been quietly annoying me since I was a student.

There are no systematic naming conventions!

Let's look at some examples.

Particle Physics:
Particle physics naming conventions (or lack thereof) are famous for their ridiculousness. Particles have mostly been named mostly haphazardly as they've been discovered. The names are often cute. For instance, gluons hold quarks together (like glue, get it?). Why "quark"? The person who predicted them, Murray Gell-Mann, liked the way it sounded. Quarks have "flavours" which describe their type - up, down (okay so far), top, bottom (how is this different from up and down?), charm (??), and strange (???).

Quark kitteh has a flavor.

While particle names can provide hours of amusement, they do create a barrier to understanding what it is they actually do. I'm not sure that I would want them to change, though!
Quantum Gases:
What made me really annoyed about lack of naming conventions, though, was not particle physics, but my own field of ultracold atoms. A lot of inspiration for ultracold atoms research comes from condensed matter physics, so they can definitely take a lot of the blame for this. As I was browsing new papers on the arXiv, I suddenly realised that I didn't have a clue what half the papers were about from reading the title, because they were all about various effects that were named after the person or people who predicted/discovered them.

What are Fulde-Ferrel-Larkin-Ovchinnikov states? Damned if I know! And if you're going to use four hyphenated names to describe something, you might as well come up with an actually meaningful term for the phenomenon! This is rampant in my field. It's nearly impossible to describe what I'm studying without referring to phenomena named after people - Feshbach resonances, Efimov resonances, Rabi frequency, Bose-Einstein condensation (!), Ioffe-Pritchard magnetic trap. Every theoretical approximation has it's own name, usually with several hyphenated names. If you're not already familiar with the sub-field, you're gonna have a hard time.

It's jargon, pure and simple, and I think it makes it difficult for newcomers to the field or for general physics audiences. I can recall many occasions where I trawled through paper after paper to try to figure out exactly what something named after someone actually was.

Who is doing it right?
Lots of people!
  • Astronomy is doing pretty well. Celestial objects are usually denoted by coordinates in the sky. How logical! You have to be if you are dealing with as many objects as they are.
  • Chemistry! They have a logical naming scheme. It may be boring, but if you know the name of a compound, usually you know what it's made up of.
  • Biologists. This should be deeply embarrassing to physicists. Enzymes, proteins, etc. have names that specify their function.

Physics is certainly not alone in this, but in a discipline tasked with revealing the mysteries of the universe and describing complex behaviour using elegant formulae, surely we can do better?

Having said all this, perhaps the folks who invented copper nanotubes would have benefited from just naming them after themselves.


  1. You realise this gives you an obligation to take a married name with at least one hyphen in it! Guillesppe-Schutlamm-Rachmanninovvski or something, so every time you publish anything people think it's by a collective (and can't spell it, which means whenever they critique you, you can start your reply by asking to them get your name right :))

    Guillesppe-Schutlamm-Rachmanninovvski quasiparticle synchrodualism sounds like a great thing.

  2. I already have a difficult last name! Somehow, arguments I've observed between scientists have not devolved to name nit-picking.

    I do think that if I ever got into particle physics, I'd change my last name to Aardvark so I could always be the first author.

  3. Not the same! As I rode into work this morning I thought it would be fun to find some scientists you admire and see if there's a "follower of" suffix you can add in their language, then use those names. So start with Rutherfordite- and add more names to suit.

    At least your name is reasonably phonetic. Running through a few friends... Bielski (Polish) is apparently beyond most English speakers, and even Kuiper (Dutch, pronounced Cooper if you can't see it as ky-per). I mean, I can understand people looking at "Jotikasthira" and going "too many syllables, can't be bothered" even though it's English-phonetic. No wonder so many east asians call themselves "Le" :)