Scientists can be awfully dry, at least until you get them playing with language
I don’t appreciate being judged by a galaxy, to say nothing of a whole group of them. But apparently they’re out there, gazing balefully down at me—and you too for that matter. That’s the implication of a study by a team of astronomers at York University in Toronto, who this week report that the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy are surrounded by 12 large galaxies 24 million light years across, forming what’s known as a “Council of Giants” that “stands in gravitational judgment” of the “Local Group” of galaxies by restricting their movement. That’s some kind of nomenclature, star boys!
Scientists, it seems, can’t help themselves. You try sitting in the same lab, staring into the same instruments, counting stars or virus particles or bits of subatomic debris all day and see if you don’t try to have a little fun when you get to play with language. In honor of the Council of Giants—and in the hope that they find me worthy—here are science’s 10 most wonderfully, outrageously, absurdly cool terms:
Noble Gasses: Think gas can’t be noble? Then recall the last time you encountered the ignoble kind. Can we move on? The noble gases come by their name rightly since they are the six gaseous members of the periodic table of the elements that have a very low reactivity (you’re excused, hydrogen) and are also colorless and, more relevantly, odorless. Thank you helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon—and take a bow.
Quarks: OK, you’ve heard the term and may not find it all that special anymore. But you haven’t gotten to know the actual members of the quark family. So meet: up, down, strange, charm, bottom and top. These aren’t just types of quarks, by the way; they’re flavors. Why? Who cares? Particle physics is a beggar’s banquet of cool terms—gluon, muon, boson, lepton—so quarks have some stiff competition. But for variety and, well, irresistible flavor, they top the group.
Enema Pan Beetle: Because it’s there, because it’s ugly and because it deserves it. The Enema Pan beetle is huge and black and has horns and hair, takes 18.1 minutes to mate (sit with that image) and can fly—sometimes. You don’t call something like that a flamingo. The beetle was named by 18th century Danish entomologist Johan Christian Fabricius, who studied under Carl Linnaeus, considered by many to be the greatest taxonomist of all time. See what happens when you let the intern run the lab for a day?
Iron Catastrophe: No, it has nothing to do with that time you wrecked your shirt. It happened a bit earlier, four billion years ago to be specific, when much of the iron in the still gooey Earth descended to the center, concentrating in the core. To be honest, that doesn’t sound like much of a catastrophe, unless you fancy using a blowtorch to cut through your topsoil before you plant your gardenias.
Hinny: Suppose your father was a stallion; suppose your mother was an ass—the donkey kind. Life is going to be hard enough, but then they go and call you a hinny and you’ve got that “Boy Named Sue” thing going too. In fairness, there’s some logic to the choice. A female donkey is called a jenny, so combine it with a horse and you kind of get a hinny. Still, the kid deserves a break.
Daughter: Plenty of scientists have the real kind, but that doesn’t stop them from applying the daughter label to the atom that’s left after an existing, radioactive atom decays. Presumably, it doesn’t stop the atomic offspring from asking for a teeny-tiny iPad when she turns 13 either.
Gondwanaland: What’s it mean? Land of the Gonds. Duh. OK, it’s one of the two ancient continents that existed on Earth 180 million years ago and it’s named after the modern-day Gond people of central Asia, so there’s some science to it. But for straightforwardness—and fantastic spelling—it makes the list.
Thorium: You thought you were excused from the periodic table, didn’t you? Well, come back and meet thorium. It’s a radioactive element with an atomic number of 90—which makes it an elemental heavyweight—and in its most common form has a half-life of 14 billion years. But the best thing about thorium? It’s named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. That easily makes it the scariest-sounding element ever—handily defeating uranium, which led the balloting until word got out that it’s named after Uranus and all the other elements started laughing at it.
Dip slip fault: An inclined plane along which subsurface plates move. Different from slip fault dip, which is what slip faults eat with their crudité.
Punnet Square: Named after British geneticist Reginald Punnett, it’s that four-square grid you used to draw in ninth grade when you were learning about dominant and recessive genes. There was a lot of competition in this category—Kreb’s cycle, Higgs boson, Venn diagram, Van Allen belts—but for sounding like a cube of pudding nobody ever eats that’s served with beef Wellington, Punnett square wins.