Among the stereotyped traits of of scientists are literal-mindedness, pedantry, and most of all, a complete lack of humor. This goes doubly so for physicists and astrophysicists.

And yet… a second thought brings one to all those oddly evocative names:

The Big Bang.

Black holes.

Strange quarks.



Other fields have their fantabulous names as well: the idea of a Velociraptor chasing you has thrilled dinophillic children for years, and who couldn’t love a gene called SonicHedgehog? But I’m going to focus on the origin of whimsical names in physics and, a bit, in astrophysics.


The Greeks were not the first to try to conceptualize and name the natural world, but they did so with such blustery self-confidence that for millenia afterwards Greek was the go-to language for Serious Description. (It did not hurt that the greatest and most prolific of early scientists, Aristotle, tutored young Alexander the Pretty Good, who after his promotion to “the Great” would thrust Hellenistic culture and language onto a sizeable fraction of the world.)

Atoms were first hypothesized by the Greek philosophers Leucippus and his more famous student Democritus. While the word “atom” sounds exotic and scientific to monolingual Anglophones, to a Greek it simply sounds something like “uncuttable.” The uncuttable bomb and uncuttable physics sounds rather dull, so use of Greek and Latin roots continued well into the modern era, to give scientific terms more heft and dignity.

William Gilbert, Elizabeth I’s private physician, coined the term electric from the Greek word for amber; a static charge can be generated by rubbing amber against cloth, as Gilbert demonstated until Elizabeth ordered him away from her skirts.  (This etymological inheritance was winked at in Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy through his alternate-universe’s use of anbaric instead of electric.) Electricity was thought to be a fluid, but with the rise of the atomic hypothesis under John Dalton, little “atoms of electricity” were proposed, dubbed the electron by George Stoney in 1894 and actually discovered by J. J. Thompson in 1897.  We can thank Stoney for introducing the trend of naming subatomic particles (something)-on.

The real era of subatomic discovery began when Ernst Rutherford figured out his trick of bouncing little tiny things off of other little tiny things. He first used natural radioactivity, alpha rays from polonium, to discover that atoms had a dense and tiny nucleus (from the Latin for “kernel;” and in German nuclear physics is Kernphysik), and later using electrostatic charges to artificially accelerate subatomic particles. This story is well told in the book The Fly in the Cathedral by Brian Cathcart.

One of Rutherford’s discoveries was that when you bashed an atom, or more properly an atomic nucleus, you got out smaller atomic nuclei. The smallest was that of hydrogen, which he dubbed proton or in Greek literally “first.”

In the first half of the twentieth century, there came first a trickle, then a flood of new particles, all slapped with classical Greco-Latinate names. Neutrons (discovered 1932 by James Chadwick) were the bland twin to protons. In 1934, Hideka Yukawa predicted the nuclear force would be carried by a particle he called the mesotron, from the Greek mesos, or “middle” (like the Mesozoic era), because he expect the mass to be between that of electrons and protons. In 1936 two candidate mesons (the term was rejiggered by linguistic fussbudget Werner Heisenberg, pointing out that while the Greek electron for amber does have a ‘tr’, there is no ‘tr’ in mesos and so Yukawa had made a false analogy)   were discovered, the pi meson and the mu meson; the former is Yukawa’s carrier of the nuclear force, while the latter is the heavier brother to the electron. In the next three decades more and more powerful particle accelerators discovered a fantastical and unwieldy zoo of mesons and baryons (Greek barys or heavy).

In the 1950s certain particles, lambdas, sigmas,  and eta andK mesons, had odd properties: they were quickly produced but decayed slowly. Japanese theorist Kazuhiko Nishijima called this property eta charge, but the American Murray Gell-Mann cut to the chase and coined a term that not only captured the essence of this new property, it also ushered in a new era of whimsy. He called it strangeness.


Less than a decade later, Gell-Mann and, independently, George Zweig, brought order to the chaos of particle physics, by supposing subatomic zoo to be built from a handful of smaller particles. Zweig called these components aces, but Gell-Mann’s term triumphed: quarks.  Originally Gell-Mann just liked the sound of this name, but found a serendipitous line in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for muster mark.” It tickled Gell-Mann’s ego to demonstrate that not only had he mastered the intricacies of group theory, the maths behind quarks, he also regularly paged through the most famously unreadable novel in the English language.

Greek words still persisted in originating names. Nowadays we classify most particles either as leptons (“thin” or “light”), which include electrons, mu mesons (retermed muons), tau mesons (tauons), and their associated neutrinos; and hadrons (from the Greek word for “thick”), particles made of quarks, further subdivided into baryons with three quarks, and mesons proper with a quark and an anti-quark (hence the muon and tauon were no longer true mesons).

But Gell-Mann’s love of whimsy has percolated throughout physics.  The existence of a charmed quark, partner to the strange quark, was predicted and later experimentally confirmed. Another quark was hypothesized and discovered in the 1970′s, the bottom quark, followed by its partner the top in the 1990′s. Whimsy does have its limits; attempts to call these quarks beauty and truth instead failed.

Nowadays there are all sorts of oddly named particles. Many are portmanteaus, such as gluons, the carrier of the strong nuclear force that glue together (get it? get it?) quarks into hadrons, and hadrons into nuclei. There is also the anyon, a theoretical construct in two-dimensional surface physics, which unlike ordinary three-dimensional particles can take on arbitrary values of spin. (Which made it particularly odd when it was used in the episode “Next Phase” of Star Trek: The Next Generation, to turn two of the crew invisible.) Superstrings is a combination of  ‘supersymmetry’ and the quantum theory of wriggling strings.

Supersymmetry predicts many new particles (none of which, alas, have yet been discovered), and is a huge source of whimsical names. Electrons, quarks, and neutrinos, which have spin ½, have supersymmetric partners with spin zero. Spin zero particles are also called scalars, and so scalar electron, scalar quark, and scalar neutrino were all shortened to selectron, squark, and sneutrino. Going in the other direction, known particles with spin one are predicted to have supersymmetric partners with spin ½ , and for some reason the -ino from neutrino (which in Italian simply is a diminuitive) became the linguistic marker: hence photino, gluino, Wino and Zino (from W and Z bosons), and even gravitino, not to be confused with the gravitini you can order from the bar at CERN.

A good fraction of words are eponymous: fermions and bosons, the basic classes of subatomic particles, are named for Enrico Fermi and Satynedra Nath Bose, respectively, who proposed their basic properties (along with Paul Dirac and Albert Einstein, but those guys were already famous enough).

Some terms have even more unusual origins: after losing a bet, a particle theorist was challenged to use the word “penguin” in his next paper. When he sobered up, he realized that, with a lot of squinting, the space-time diagram of the process he was looking at could be said to look like a ‘penguin diagram.’

Close cousin to physics is astrophysics, and here John Wheeler replaces Murray Gell-Mann as the main instigator of whimsical nomenclature. Wheeler coined the terms beloved of SF writers and fans, “wormhole” (1957) and “black hole” (1967), as well as many koan-like slogans such as “it from bit.”

“Big Bang” was introduced by Fred Hoyle in 1949 as a term of derision; it is one of the ironies of science that his coinage stuck, while his favored cosmology, the Steady State theory, has faded from view.

Sadly, the market for whimsy and new Greco-Latinate words has slumped, in part due to major physics journals having severely dull policies for coining new terms. Most new terms these days tend to by eponymous or acronyms, or, frequently, both. A standard method in quantum mechanics is the WKB, or Wentzel-Kramers-Brillioun approximation, although in the Netherlands it is called KBW (as Kramers was Dutch), in France BWK (Brillioun was…you guessed it), and in England it is JWKB, adding Jeffreys, a British mathematician.  In gauge and string theories we have BRST, or Becchi-Rouet-Stora-Tyutin. And so on.

Although whimsy lives on, these days most physicists sneak whatever linguistic cleverness they have into their prose and their popularizations and not their coinage. At least for now.


And now it’s your turn. I haven’t touched biology (see http://www.curioustaxonomy.net/) or chemistry or any of the other sciences, and I’ve probably forgotten terms in condensed matter physics.

What are your favorite terms in science?

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.