Games Physicists Play

By Thomsen, Dietrick E. | Science News, March 5, 1988 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Games Physicists Play


Thomsen, Dietrick E., Science News


Games Physicists Play

Now and then people ask me why physicists can't be more serious. Why, they wonder, are these people always joking? Why are they always committing lese majeste against the great queen Science? They treat everything as if it's all so much fun. Do such insouciant types really think we're about to build them a $5 billion toy, a Superconducting Super Collider to play with?

The answer is: Yes, they do, and no, they're not going to change. Their fanciful name games are just one example. When biologists or chemists name something, they use either Latin or a strange dialect in which upper- and lowercase Latin and Greek letters are jumbled together, and in which numbers and even commas are used as elements of spelling. I am totally illiterate in this jargon, and I don't propose to learn it. Physicists, in contrast, give things short, snappy and often funny names.

Frank Wilczek, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, deliberately named a particle "axion" after the preparation that promises to get stains out of your laundry. "Quark" supposedly comes from James Joyce's novel Finnegan's Wake. (These people are literate, too.)

You can get into trouble with this sometimes. Someone once proposed naming the unit of natural logarithms (e = 2.6...) the "nap" after 16th-century mathematician John Napier, who discovered logarithms, but the Swedish representative on the international committee objected that "nap" means "teat" in Swedish. A physicist of Central European origin used to object strongly to "quark," but never gave his reasons. Colleagues surmised that "quark" must mean something obscene in Hungarian.

I don't know what "quark" means in Hungarian, but in German it means "cream cheese." There is even something called Quarkkuchen, quark cake. A friend of mine ordered it in Swiss restaurant and found that it was stuck all over with highly colored bits of candied fruit. "The chef must believe in a coloreD-quark-gluon theory," my friend remarked.

A couple of Italian astronomers discovered an X-ray source in the sky that looks like nothing anyone ever expected to find. So they called it Geminga, Milanese for "it doesn't exist." That one could have backfired. There have been discoveries in astronomy that turned out, on second look, to be geminga, literally.

At times it can get close to the boundary of taste. Grand Unified Theories are universally known as GUTs, and the opportunities are endless. Some astronomers discussing blemishes in the smoothness of the universal background radiation called them zits, and then had the gall to talk about squeezing the data a little harder.

It's not for nothing that one of the founding conferences of particle physics was held at the Grossinger Hotel in the Catskills, which had heard generations of vaudeville shtick.

Can people like this be treated as adults, as sane even? I wonder sometimes myself, but I think the answer is yes. A rabbi once said: "When I contemplate the world, I can either laugh or cry. I choose to laugh.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Games Physicists Play
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?