Games Physicists Play

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

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. …

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