Schrödinger's Kitten

Irreverent Science for Everyone

Friday 22 April 2016

Scientist Or Not, Silly Names Float Everyone's Boat

  • policy
  • names
  • globalwarming

There is currently sadness across Britain, as the public are told that their naming choices are not serious enough for science. But working scientists do far worse themselves. Projects to explore the depths of the universe and the essence of the universe revel in titles like ‘WiggleZ’ and ‘GiggleZ’. The vast public support for ‘Boaty McBoatface’ shows that scientists and normal people share some priorities, and gives hope that one day the two species may be able to communicate, or even coexist.

Jo Johnson1, the UK Science Minister, explained that while popular, ‘Boaty McBoatface’ does not convey ‘the spirit of scientific endeavour’ required for labels written on the sides of floating things in cold water. This large object, which is less dense than water, is being funded by the Natural Environment Research Council to venture into the Antarctic and gather further information on all the ways we are irredeemably fucked. Equipped with drones and submarines, the as-yet-anonymous atlantean buoyancy aid will gather measurements of ice sheet thickness, water, and touching portraits of charismatic megafauna, so this rich wealth of information on the decline of a precious environment can be ignored with renewed vigour. And they sought name suggestions for the floating research station on the internet.

Throwing open the naming of the 24/7 party in international waters to the public was a bold attempt to get a decent name for the project. The frontrunner ‘Boaty’2 attained 124,000 votes, but many other suitable candidates for a UK vessel made the top 10. The RRS Sir David Attenborough continues a theme of naming for old white men, while the RRS It’s Bloody Cold Here is in the British tradition of whining about the weather and the RRS Usain Boat shows there’s never a bad time for a pun. But amongst all the names proposed, none are as bad as what the scientists themselves would have done.

If left unattended, scientists name genes such things as ‘sonic the hedgehog3, quantum research programmes spangl4q (pronounced ‘spanglefork’)4, and particles that stick quarks together ‘gluons’. The term ‘HOMO’ (Highest Occupied Molecular Orbital) doesn’t seem to bother anyone else; someone thought CREAMTEA was an appropriate name for an anti-terror operation; and ‘Overwhelmingly Large Telescope’ was the working name for a — now cancelled — 1.5 billion euro project (OWL for short). Contrived acronyms are another speciality: the Centre for Mathematics, Physics and Engineering in the Life Sciences and Experimental Biology is naturally contracted to CoMPLEX, while JIMMY is an acronym for nothing because its creator made the name up first and then gave up trying reverse-construct a reason. Next to this, Boaty McBoatface looks like Wordsworth, and the other candidates a transcendental vision of poetry in prose.4 And the voting public should be proud of that.

So, in the opinion of this kitten, it’s a win for all. Science PR bods are reminded of the irredeemable frivolity of people on the internet, scientists are forcibly separated from tortuous acronyms, and the publics demonstrate their effortless abilities in wringing humour from science5. NERC have one of the best-known research projects around, and we have conclusively demonstrated that a gravitas shortfall can work well for a ship. The only people who haven’t come out of this shining are the government, who have been accused of being humourless on global warming related matters. But even this slight blemish is clearly refuted by a moment’s thought about their previous appointments to the climate change committee.

1. Name not chosen by the public.

2. I have a dark suspicion that the real reason this wasn’t adopted is the inaccuracy of the technical terms. This is a large vessel, and therefore not a boat; properly, it should be Shippy McShipface. Ships have multiple decks (see, I learned something at UCL Mechanical Engineering). This would, I admit, require careful pronunciation on the radio.

3. As a result of doctors having to break the news to people about sad conditions by invoking Nintendo characters, this is now being phased out. On the other hand when, 6 years ago, they found something that might stop the gene, they named it 'Robotnikinin', so one wonders how long this will take.

4. Many thanks to James Hallett for these comments, which started this piece...

5. If this sounds like a task for you, check out Science Showoff.

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