The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
I like that quote from Mark Twain, and it will do nicely to get us thinking about scientific names. It’s not very often that a scientist gets the chance to name a phenomenon. Keep in mind, of course, that naming something after yourself gets you 20 points on the crackpot index! Within physics and astronomy, the names of the things we study have been chosen rather haphazardly, and so the results are somewhat mixed. Chemistry and biology seem to be more systematic about these things. Here is my personal opinion on some of the best and worst examples:
The Great Attractor: there’s a great big mass attracting our galaxy. Couldn’t have been named any better.
Black hole: a tad “doomsday-ish” but it certainly captures the imagination. It helps if you think of them as a prison rather than a vacuum cleaner.
Big Bang: it’s inaccurate (it wasn’t big, there was no bang), but in its favour it did capture the public’s attention. Timothy Ferris held a competition to find a better name, and despite thousands of entries, no better term was found. It’s not surprising, really, that we can’t find an accurate and succinct way to describe the creation of all matter,space and time from nothing.
Supernova: an intriguing, lyrical word. There is a danger of the word “super” being used indiscreetly, which leads to the need to use “mega, “ultra”, “hyper”, “uber” and the like. But the explosion of a star, luminous enough to outshine a galaxy, seems to warrant the term.
The strong force: a no-nonsense description. The “weak force” is obviously just as good.
Relativity: Einstein wanted to call it “invariance theory”, since the central postulate of the theory is the invariance of the laws of physics (including the speed of light) under changes in reference frame. Calling it “relativity” has led to such idiotic statements as “Einstein showed that truth/morality/everything is relative”.
Anthropic principle: Brandon Carter admits that this is a misnomer – we’re interested in all possible forms of intelligent life, not just human beings. Perhaps the “biophilic principle” is better.
Quasar: the brightest sustained energy source in the universe, matter desperately radiating on its last plunge into a black hole, with the leftovers shot in near-light-speed jets away from the disk. And we call it a “quasi-stellar object”, or quasar. Boring! Pulsar is just as bad. Finding a suitable alternative is left as an exercise for the reader!
Copernican Principle: probably an anachronism. The controversial element of Copernicus’ work was not that the Earth was displaced from its privileged place at the centre of the universe. It was that the Earth was supposed to be moving. Aristotle didn’t place earth at the centre of the universe because of a sense of the Earth’s importance – in Aristotelian physics, matter falls to the centre of the Earth because the crud settles to the bottom. The heavens, the celestial sphere was perfect and pristine. We were the crap, the imperfect, dirty matter that collects at the bottom. If you’re working in Aristotelian physics, the hypothesis that the Earth is moving is falsified by experience – if we’re moving at 100,000 km/h around the sun, why aren’t we thrown backwards? If I throw something in the air, why doesn’t it go flying backwards? The idea that the Earth is stationary wasn’t just human arrogance from the ancients.
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