Writing and Physics

One of the very sad consequences of the ideological rivalry between the sciences and the humanities is that everything that has come out of physics over the last sixty years or so has been cursed with incredibly boring, incredibly stupid names.

To give an example, most modern physicists seem unaware that the English language contains modifiers other than the word “super.” This appears to have started with the discovery of superfluids back in the 1950s–one assumes that the scientists involved had grown-up reading Superman comics and decided that it sounded cool. Since then, we have had “supersymmetry,” “superstring theory*,” “superconduction,” “superconformal field theories,” “supergravity” and “superdense coding,” among others.**

Off in Switzerland, we have an enormous machine capable of ramming fundamental chunks of matter into one another at energies unseen since the creation of the universe*** and what do we call it? The “Large Hadron Collider.” This, admittedly, is an improvement over the presumably alternative “Big Machine for Crashing Hadrons into One Another,” but surely we can come-up with something which captures the imagination to a greater extent. It will no doubt come as little surprise to learn that the next generation of particle accelerator is to be called the “Very Large Hadron Collider.” Ah well, at least it’s not the Super Large Hadron Collider.****

I realize that we can’t all be John Archibald Wheeler (one of the few modern physicists who was consistently able to come up with evocative-sounding names for things like “black holes,” “spacetime,” “quantum foam” and “wormholes”): but surely to Ba’al, when talking about acoustic black hole analogues, we should be able to come up with a less ridiculous name than “Dumb Hole.”

I would like to propose that there should be a special class of people who get degrees in both physics and English. It will be the responsibility of these people to come-up with evocative, but nevertheless accurate***** appellations, so that amazing new discoveries are not saddled with stupid/boring names. I would also like to propose that this profession be called “Physical Nomenclaturist,” but I am open to suggestions.


*Which, in fairness, actually makes sense because it’s the supersymmetric version of string theory.

**I’ve left “supersonic” of the list, because this literally means “greater than [the speed] of sound.”

***This is a bit of a misnomer, since such energies are actually rather routinely in astroparticle physics, but this is only time where they have been seen in a convenient location since the creation of the universe.

****That presumably comes next.

*****Don’t even get me started again on the “God Particle.”


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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6 Responses to Writing and Physics

  1. Lindsay says:

    I agree that this would be cool, but I *KNOW* I am horribly unsuited to be this person for my own field, even though I have the requisite degrees! I am TERRIBLE at naming and tend to give things precisely the kind of names you describe above, the boring-but-accurate ones that describe what the thing does.

    Probably the most creative I could get is giving something a name that describes what the thing does in another language.

  2. Lindsay says:

    So an English degree and a literary bent in addition to whatever science background you have isn’t enough, is what I am saying. That the sets of people who can give things cool, but accurate, names and people with interests, skills and an educational background drawing equally on the natural sciences and literary arts are not identical.

  3. zinemin says:

    The fascinating names of concepts in physics are one of the things that attracted me to the field in the first place. Anti-matter, cosmic microwave background, symmetry-breaking, technicolor, charm and strange quark, time dilation, fusion, fission, strong force, electroweak symmetry-breaking, entanglement. How beautiful! And as you say, one of my favourites: spacetime. I even like the more simple ones that include greek letters, like muon, gamma-radiation etc.
    But I agree the super-things do not sound interesting, and I also agree that they could stop putting “large” “extremely large”, “overwhelmingly large”, “grand” in front of new toys. That just sounds rather silly. But it’s probably what the funding agencies want to hear. Also, if they would call it something “Big Bang Machine” then people would freak out even more about potential side-effect.

  4. N G says:

    A lot of humanities are jealous of the “rigour” of the sciences and borrow your discipline’s terminology to enhance their prestige. Economics which is fundamentally about human behaviour likes to use words like “equilibrium”. Personally I prefer physics words like Quantum Ergodicity to humanities fluff words such as transgressive and liminality used to discuss periods of change and cover up the level of perceptual ambiguity on the part of the observer.

    • “Economics which is fundamentally about human behaviour likes to use words like “equilibrium”.”
      Economics is a Frankensteinian mish-mash of mathematics and humanities, so it doesn’t seem necessarily unreasonable for it to use ‘science-y’ sounding terminology.
      “Personally I prefer physics words like Quantum Ergodicity to humanities fluff words such as transgressive and liminality used to discuss periods of change and cover up the level of perceptual ambiguity on the part of the observer.”
      The advantage of physics terminology is that it all very precisely defined, so it’s almost impossible to bullshit to another physicist if you don’t know what you’re talking about.
      Trust me, I’ve tried.

  5. Pingback: I Take It All Back | voxcorvegis

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