One of the joys of being a scientist — particularly in a field that’s exploding — is that you get to name the things you discover. Maybe if I’d lingered longer in the lab before fleeing to a writerly career there would be a Jocelynetensium ricensis bacterium flagella-whipping its way across some bio student’s glass slide. But alas. Now my only option is to hound some generous scientist and make him like me so much that he wants to name something after me. Something really important.
In the meantime, here’s a roundup of scientific whatnots with names — some eponymous, some not — that make you stop and ask, really? They got away with that?
The list of asteroid names reads, for the most part, like a mashup between a phone book, a history of science textbook, and an encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology. But nestled in among the Aphrodites and Persephones, the Fouriers and Feynmans, the 52 names starting with “David,” “Dave,” or “Davy” and the 20 starting with “Bob,” are a few odd nuggets:
- Adamcarolla and Drewpinsky. These two dispensed raunchy advice that I found both riotously funny and Very Important… when I was 13. But I’m not sure any of it — or even all of it combined — is worth an asteroid.
- Bacon. Okay wait. Are we talking Sir Francis Bacon? Kevin Bacon? Or greasy sizzling strips of porky goodness? If it’s the latter, I’m completely on board.
- Forbes. Can an asteroid be sponsored? What if that asteroid then collides with earth? Is the sponsor held resposible?
- GNU. All hail recursive acronyms. What about ASTEROID, for Asteroids Still Terrify Everyone Regardless Of Improbable Destruction?
Organic chemistry provides a nice clean organized way of naming things so that any other chemist will be able to figure out the structure of a molecule from its name alone. The trouble is, once a molecule gets big enough to be really interesting, the name gets so unwieldy as to be useless. Here are some of the solutions (har har) people have come up with:
- Moronic acid. A 5-ringed structure that can be isolated from mistletoe. Which sort of explains the name. Just picture someone standing under the mistletoe, eyes closed, lips puckered, hoping the kiss he’s owed comes from hot second-cousin Kiki and not great aunt Edna.
- Bis(pinacolato)diboron. A useful boron agent, not derived from fruity cocktails. You can easily purchase it. Just don’t add it to your drink.
- Pterodactyladiene. It looks like a pterodactyl. What more can I say?
- SEX. Which stands for sodium ethyl xanthate. It can be purchased as either a liquid or a solid. Too much SEX makes for a Dangerous Substance. And no wonder: in large doses, it causes “dizziness, tremors, difficulty breathing, blurred vision, headaches, vomiting and death.”
- Diurea. Two molecules of urea stuck together, of course. Used as a fertilizer, of course. Used in paints and greases to improve flow. Of course.
(Pterodactyl and pterodactyladiene image lifted from here.)
The International Zoological Commision on Naming was formed in 1895 to regulate the naming of living things. It specifies, in its code, that “a zoologist should not propose a name that, when spoken, suggests a bizarre, comical, or otherwise objectionable meaning.” The guys who named Ba humbugi must have missed that part. Here are some others:
- Montypythonoides riversleighensis. Sadly this name, for an extinct 30-foot-long python, didn’t stick. The snake was ultimately reclassified. But the best part is that its namers tried to justify the name by saying they found the fossil on a hill, or monti.
- Bison (bison) bison bison. That’s an animal in the genus bison, the subgenus bison, the species bison, and the subspecies bison. Which reminds me: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Bufallo buffalo buffalo.
- Ittibitium. It’s a genus of tiny fish. Tinier even than the fish of the genus Bittium.
- So there’s a Southern Blot, named after its inventor, Edwin Southern. It can detect the presence of a given snippet of DNA in a sample. So when a similar technique was developed to detect RNA, it made sense to call it the Northern Blot. Next, of course, came the Western Blot, to pick up the presence of a particular protein. And then the Southwestern Blot, which looks for proteins that like to stick to DNA. Why no Eastern Blot?
Geneticists’ propensity for reckless gene naming has gotten them into some trouble. Gene names like Sonic Hedgehog are fun in the lab. But when the gene turned out to be associated with a rare genetic disorders (such as cyclopia, where the patient has a single eye in the middle of the forehead), it became a little less funny. The HUGO gene nomenclature committee voted to strip the gene of its Sega mascot name. Other weird gene names:
- RING Finger. Which stands for Really Interesting New Gene. Only it’s not a gene. It’s a specialized stretch within a protein that probably mediates interactions with certain other proteins. Lots of proteins have RING fingers. Talk about lazy naming.
- Mothers against decapentaplegic. So there’s a gene called decapentaplegic. And when a mother fruit fly has this gene, her children have suppressed decapentaplegic activity.
- Pray for elves. Susan Lewis, who named this one, wrote: “It is the middle of the night (2:38 to be precise), I am away from friends and family, It has been this way for over 2 years, I can’t sleep because of all the work there is yet to do, and there is no end in sight. So when do the magic little elves appear out of nowhere and get everything done?”