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Nicole Ackerman | SLAC | USA

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Goofy Physics Names

There are many things to name in physics – particles, phenomena, experiments, objects in space, etc. Instead of enumerating long list of ridiculous names, I’ll focus on some of the best origin stories. I may return to the topic in the future for further analysis and laughter.

First off: Quarks. Perhaps the “quark” has one of the better-known origins, especially since it is one of the more likely particles to be discussed outside of the field. Murray Gell-Mann cites James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for providing the spelling, though he already knew the sound of the word before reading the line “Three quarks for Muster Mark!”. So arguably there is no clear motivation for the name, but it did provide Gell-Mann with an opportunity to show how well-read he is.

Boojum is one of my personal favorites. It is a phenomenon in superfluidity, which I know little (ie, nothing) about. The name comes from a Lewis Carroll poem, The Hunting of the Snark. David Mermin is responsible for the name, and I commend him, as I would rather physics be associated with Carroll than Joyce.

Penguin Diagrams deserve to be recognized for providing particle physics with its first cuddly mascot (BaBar is the second). While I’ve heard the story related with a variety of details, the name is due to a pub bet over a game of darts. Mellisa Franklin bet John Ellis that he would have to include the word penguin in his next paper if he lost the game. Many physicists make small bets – usually over physics results – but I think the stakes should be changed from quarters and dimes to ridiculous paper inclusions.

Physics always have a lot of stuff that we have to name, so the challenge is figuring out how to name it. Experimental names are helpful for remembering the different between them. “Unnamed” experiments like E157 (plasma wakefield acceleration) and E158 (Weak mixing angle measurement in Moller Scattering) are hard to remember and distinguish. But what inspiration to use? Literature is nice, though you then have to find something with silly words in it that don’t already mean something. My partner Tom studies magnetism and superconductivity in novel materials, so he seems more likely than I am to find something new to name. His plan? To use Dr. Seuss words.

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