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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

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Nerds and Names

If there’s one thing that makes me jealous about planetary scientists, it’s how many things they get to name. They also seem to have an awful lot of fun with it. Consider these typical naming processes:

  • Experimental particle physicists: “Jeff Weiss did an ‘availability search” of the Greek alphabet and found that the Greek letter Upsilon was not yet used”. [1]
  • Planetary scientists: “Woooooooo, another mountain range! Let me get my copy of the Silmarillion!” [2]

They also seem to have snuck in a Marvel Cinematic Universe tie-in while naming one of Pluto’s newer moons.


But wait, you may ask, doesn’t particle physics have whimsical names?  A few, sure. But it was the theoretical physicists who named things like “quarks”; by the time we discover them, we already know what they’re supposed to be and don’t get to make up new names.  New particles with 5 quarks?  We’ll just be literal and call them “pentaquarks”; the specific states can be Pc(4450)+ and Pc(4380)+[3], names which give useful information about charge and mass but aren’t really any fun.  Really, the most fun we ever get to have is with tortured acronyms [4].  It’s just not fair at all.

But seriously, congratulations to everyone working on New Horizons.  Enjoy your fun — you’ve earned it. And maybe the next particle we discover, we’ll take a page from your playbook.

[1] J. Yoh (1998). “The Discovery of the b Quark at Fermilab in 1977: The Experiment Coordinator’s Story“. AIP Conference Proceedings 424: 29–42.

[2] Not an actual quote (as far as I know). But since yesterday, Pluto has a “Cthulhu” and a “Balrog” and Charon has a “Mordor”.

[3] See Adrian Davis’s Quantum Diaries post from yesterday.

[4] ATLAS Collaboration (2008). “The ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.” JINST 3 S08003. See the acronym list appendix.


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  • Xezlec

    Why can’t you name them each something? Just start using the names and correct anyone who uses those boring identifiers in your presence. It’ll catch on.