Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Wacky Names that Scientists Give Their Experiments

One way in which science fiction falls short in depicting "genuine" science is in the names that scientists give their experiments. Experiments in physics or astronomy are often labeled by whimsical acronyms that spell out the names of animals or cartoon characters, or that produce clever puns. You won't see this very often in science fiction, because science fiction writers' hands are tied -- if their fictional scientists emulated real life and gave their experiments silly names, the readers would automatically assume that the story was intended to be humorous. This is one time that truth really is stranger (or at least funnier) than fiction.  (One exception is Larry Niven, who somehow manages to give his planets and alien races playful names in otherwise serious stories).

I was reminded of this at the physics conference I attended last week. One of the speakers presented a new experiment, called "Project 8." It's designed to measure the minuscule mass of neutrinos by detecting radiation from electrons ejected with the neutrinos in radioactive decay. But why "Project 8"?  Were the first 7 projects abject failures? It reminded me of a bizarre Japanese cartoon that I used to watch as a kid: Tobor, the 8th Man, which played endlessly on after-school TV when I was growing up in the days before Sesame Street came along and ruined children's television. The 8th Man was a superhero cyborg, who, when he got into trouble (which happened in every episode), would smoke "energy cigarettes" to recharge his powers. Energy cigarettes??? What was he really smoking? You can check out the unforgettable theme song (which I still can't get out of my head) here.

But back to the issue at hand. After the director of Project 8 finished his talk, I asked him where the name of the experiment came from. He told me that he made it up out of thin air! He was tired of names of experiments composed of silly acronyms. I have to admit that it certainly sounds cool.

What are some of the other whimsical names of physics and astronomy projects? Here are just a few:

BaBar, a particle physics experiment designed to study B mesons and their antiparticles (in particle physics, an antiparticle is denoted by writing a bar over it. B-bar, get it?)  Also, a talking elephant.

IceCube, a neutrino detector at the South Pole consisting of a cubic kilometer of ice.

PINGU, the Precision IceCube Next Generation Upgrade.  Also a stop-motion children's cartoon about penguins.  My kids really like it.  (The penguin, that is -- they have no opinion about the neutrino detector).

Animal names are always popular:

EGRET, the Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope

PANDA, antiProton Annihilations at DArmstadt. Seems a little forced to me.

SPIDER, an experiment at the South Pole to measure polarization of the cosmic background radiation.  Its website says that it "used to be an acronym" but isn't anymore.  Just like KFC, I guess.

POLARBEAR, another experiment to measure the polarization of the cosmic background radiation. Despite its name, it's not located at either pole.  False advertising!

OWL, the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope.  This was a proposed 100-meter telescope. Unfortunately, it got downsized and is now merely the Extremely Large Telescope.

And don't forget about Greek mythology:

ATLAS:  A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS (see my comment on PANDA above).

HERA:  Hadron-Elektron-RingAnlage (a German experiment, but the acronym works just as well in English:  Hadron-Electron Ring Accelerator).

ZEUS:  A detector at the HERA accelerator.  Those of you familiar with Greek mythology will get the joke..

ArgoNeuT:  The Argon Neutrino Teststand at Fermilab.  An acronym AND a bad pun all rolled into one! This one gets my vote for the best name on my list.

It's even better if someone names an experiment after you:

ALICE, A Large Ion Collider Experiment.

AMANDA, Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array

ANITA, ANtarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna

DORIS, DOppel-RIng-Speicher.

KATRIN, KArlsruh TRitium Neutrino experiment.

And I am still waiting for an experiment named "BOB".

So are those of us who do physics and astronomy just intrinsically funnier than our colleagues in biology and chemistry?  Yes. Yes, we are.


Kathy said...

The scientists in Project 8 might be a closet fan of "Plan Nine From Outer Space." Or, worse, a Windows 8 apologist.

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