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Physics and astronomy's strange language: hot to befuddle the public.

SOME PEOPLE spend their days with pencils and paper clips, others with diapers and shopping carts. Physicists and astronomers, though, deal with WIMPs and MACHOs, giants and dwarfs, and bubble chambers. Then, there are the subatomic particles called quarks, which figure prominently in physics and astronomy. There are six types: up, down, beauty, truth, charm, and strange quarks. Strange quarks? They all sound pretty strange. The terms seem more at home in Alice's Wonderland than in the realm of serious science.

The nomenclature scientisis use stands out in rebellion against typical academic jargon. The men and women who study the world at scales ranging from the tiny to the huge have named their discoveries utilizing imagination that reflects their own personalities. These are scientists who blend the creativity of artists with the rigor of mathematicians.

"As a lot, we're very susceptible to big, private jokes," indicates Ohio State University physicist Bill Palmer. There are legends and myths behind the naming of many terms, stories passed down like family secrets. Take the legend of the penguin diagrams--schematic drawings that represent the interaction between subatomic particles. The diagrams have nothing to do with the flightless birds. The term was coined when two physicists playing darts made a bet. Whoever lost the game would have to include the word "penguin" in his next scholarly work.

"There's a touch of the sixth-grader in all of us," Palmer points out. Moreover, a sort of one-upsmanship has pitted scholars in a competition to author goofy terms. Palmer's personal dream is to see the theory of quarks enlarged to include the terms "smell," "stench," and "odor." He feels that "We can afford to be a little silly because we know how to use the arcane math terms to counter accusations that we're just juvenile and silly."

Some physicists like to think that scholars in some of the other disciplines have "physics envy," a yearning to be precise, quantitative, and, most of all, to be taken seriously by those in the "hard" sciences. That is why, a physicist might argue, other fields strain to be serious, filling their journals with faux-intellectual language that is indicative of a basic insecurity--of physics envy.

How do physicists and astronomers name their brainchildren? The process appears to be pretty random. Take, for instance, the naming of the quark. Long ago, "quark" referred to a bird's caw (or, in German, a runny cheese). Physicist Murray Gell-Mann changed all that in 1964. The history books say that he wanted "a strange sound for something peculiar." He had chosen "quork," but then, while flipping through the James Joyce novel Finnegans Wake, he read the line, "Three quarks for Muster Mark." The distinguished physicist is quoted as saying that coming up with odd scientific terms is "just a gag. It's a reaction against pretentious scientific language."

Nobel laureate in physics Leon Lederman attributes the preposterous parlance of astronomers and physicists to "an intrinsic sense of whimsy." Back in the 1950s, Lederman helped name strange matter (later identified as strange quarks). "The name fit because of [the matter's] oddball behavior. It was very peculiar," he explains.

Then, in the mid 1960s, Lederman was part of the team that found evidence of three quarks. "But, for the sake of symmetry, we thought we'd find a fourth. So we said to ourselves, 'Wouldn't it be charming if we found a fourth quark?'" Thus, the fourth quark, found a decade later, was destined to be called "charm."

Some astronomers seem to be embarrassed by the Big Bang--the ignoble moniker given to the theory of how the universe began. In fact, Sky & Telescope magazine is sponsoring a contest to rename the blessed event, but, according to an article by the Knight-Ridder News Service, some of the alternatives are no more dignified. How about "Primordial Poof'? Or, from the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes," trying "the horrendous space kablooie"?

The Big Bang Theory, which assumes that the observable universe was once as small as a dot, but then began expanding, was named by an opponent of the theory, Sir Fred Hoyle. He had proposed another theory and, during a BBC radio show in 1950, tried to slam the hypothesis of expansion by calling it the Big Bang Theory. The name stuck, while Hoyle's theory was dismissed. The rest is history.

A thorough knowledge of history helped physicist John Archibald Wheeler and a colleague in naming the black hole. In 1756, the Indians of Calcutta confined several dozen Europeans to an 18'-by-15' underground cell, until many of them died. That pit, the "black hole of Calcutta," represented something ominous, something from which nothing could escape. Wheeler often gave presentations about his work on gravitationally completely collapsed objects and, growing tired of that tongue twister, began to substitute "black hole" for the more scientific term. "A colleague had suggested it, and I was happy to use any abbreviation that came down the pike." Now a professor emeritus at Princeton University, Wheeler is tickled that the term has become part of American speech. It is not uncommon to hear a woman's purse, colleague's office, or teenager's bedroom referred to as a "black hole."

While black hole has evolved from being an astronomical term to slang, some slang words have been adopted for scientific use. Take WIMPs and MACHOs, for example, which are believed to be sources of dark matter, the invisible substance thought to make up 90% of the galaxy's mass.

WIMPs, or Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, were named in 1985 by Ohio State University professor of physics and astronomy Gary Steigman and Michael Turner, a physicist at the University of Chicago. They had their first WIMPy paper published in a European journal "because it was less staid than its American counterpart, and they let us keep the acronym," Steigman explains.

Three years later, Kim Griest, an assistant professor of physics at the University of California at San Diego, proposed a different kind of dark matter. He racked his brain to name it and consciously set out to find an acronym to counter the WIMP theory. "I wrote down several combinations of letters for an accurate acronym, and MACHOs scored so high on the stupidity scale that I knew it would stick."

Whether such terms will become permanent fixtures in the English language is still unknown. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and a mathematician, playfully renamed the branches of arithmetic as ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision. The labels didn't stick, though. Instead, his legacy was such creative nonsense words as "snark" and "jabberwocky."

"Scientists like Carroll may be given to staring at theorems all day," Bill Palmer notes, "but their imagination expands from that narrow field to things completely universal."

Could You Get a SQUID Through a Wormhole?

Bubble chamber is a small vessel used to examine and identify charged subatomic particles. As the particles move through the chamber, a bubbly track is produced.

GUT (Grand Unified Theory) attempts to unify the weak, strong, and electromagnetic interactions.

Gluon, deriving from "glue" and "on," is a particle that transmits a force that keeps quarks together. A clump of gluons is called a glueball.

Barn is a unit of area used to express the probability that two particles will collide. The area is so big that physicists would say, "It's so easy for the particles to hit each other, it's like hitting the broad side of a barn."

Monte Carlo refers to a computational technique that relies on using random samples to find solutions to mathematical or physical problems. Named after Monte Carlo, Monaco, noted as a gambling resort.

Wormholes are hypothetical passageways through space, connecting any two points.

Seven Samurai are a group of seven astronomers who measured the velocities of galaxies, a key effort to measure the distribution of matter in the universe.

SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device) is a microscopic ring of superconducting material.

Giants and dwarfs. Giants are very bright large celestial bodies; dwarfs, small stars, such as the sun. The terms were conied by Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung.
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Title Annotation:includes related information
Author:Scherer, Sarah Williams
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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