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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?
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“Physics envy. The lure of reducing complex problems to basic physical principles has dominated the philosophy of science since Descartes’s failed attempt some four centuries ago to explain cognition by the actions of swirling vortices of atoms dancing their way to consciousness. Such Cartesian dreams provide a sense of certainty, but they quickly fade in the face of the complexities of biology. We should be exploring consciousness at the neural level and higher, where the arrow of causal analysis points up toward such principles as emergence and self-organization. Biology envy.”
I am eight years old. All around me, bookshelves stretch beyond sight in every direction: an infinite library. A librarian — my taskmaster — looms over me as I toil towards a fast-approaching deadline. I must catalog every book.
I remember this nightmare with startling immediacy. At eight years old, I feared infinity as tangibly as I feared wolves and crocodiles. I felt an intense emotional response to a mathematical abstraction, a response that hasn’t since dulled. In jest, I call myself an infinityophobe. But in all earnestness, I wonder — am I afraid of the concept itself, or of my inability to understand it?
Humans wield the unique ability to practice conscious science; we tame the world around us by explaining it. And yet, as mental gymnasts, we crumple in the face of the very large and the very small. The infinite and the infinitesimal remain obstinately alien.