The Four Ways Physicists Name Things

If you’re a biologist and you discover a new animal, you’ve always got Latin to fall back on. If you’re an astronomer, you can describe what you see. But if you’re a physicist, your only option appears to involve falling back on one of a few terrible habits.

The most reasonable option is just to name it after a person. Yang-Mills and the Higgs Boson may sound silly at first, but once you know the stories of C. N. Yang, Robert Mills, Peter Higgs and Satyendra Nath Bose you start appreciating what the names mean. While this is usually the most elegant option, the increasingly collaborative nature of physics means that many things have to be named with a series of initials, like ABJM, BCJ and KKLT.

A bit worse is the tendency to just give it the laziest name possible. What do you call the particles that “glue” protons and neutrons together? Why gluons, of course, yuk yuk yuk!

This is particularly common when it comes to supersymmetry, where putting the word “super” in front of something almost always works. If that fails, it’s time to go for more specific conventions: to find the partner of an existing particle, if the new particle is a boson, just add “s-” for “super”“scalar” apparently to the name. This creates perfectly respectable names like stau, sneutrino, and selectron. If the new particle is a fermion, instead you add “-ino” to the end, getting something like a gluino if you start with a gluon. If you’ve heard of neutrinos, you may know that neutrino means “little neutral one”. You might perfectly rationally expect that gluino means “little gluon”, if you had any belief that physicists name things logically. We don’t. A gluino is called a gluino because it’s a fermion, and neutrinos are fermions, and the physicists who named it were too lazy to check what “neutrino” actually means.

Pictured: the superpartner of Nidoran?

Worse still are names that are obscure references and bad jokes. These are mercifully rare, and at least memorable when they occur. In quantum mechanics, you write down probabilities using brackets of two quantum states, \langle a | b\rangle. What if you need to separate the two states, \langle a| and |b\rangle? Then you’ve got a “bra” and a “ket”!

Or have you heard the story of how quarks were named? Quarks, for those of you unfamiliar with them, are found in protons and neutrons in groups of three. Murray Gell-Mann, one of the two people who first proposed the existence of quarks, got their name from Finnegan’s Wake, a novel by James Joyce, which at one point calls for “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” While this may at first sound like a heartwarming tale of respect for the literary classics, it should be kept in mind that a) Finnegan’s Wake is a novel composed almost entirely of gibberish, read almost exclusively by people who pretend to understand it to seem intelligent and b) this isn’t exactly the most important or memorable line in the book. So Gell-Mann wasn’t so much paying homage to a timeless work of literature as he was referencing the most mind-numbingly obscure piece of nerd trivia before the invention of Mara Jade. Luckily these days we have better ways to remember the name.

Albeit wrinklier ways.

The final, worst category, though, don’t even have good stories going for them. They are the names that tell you absolutely nothing about the thing they are naming.

Probably the worst examples of this from my experience are the a-theorem and the c-theorem. In both cases, a theory happened to have a parameter in it labeled by a letter. When a theorem was proven about that parameter, rather than giving it a name that told you anything at all about what it was, people just called it by the name of the parameter. Mathematics is full of names like this too. Without checking Wikipedia, what’s the difference between a set, a group, and a category? What the heck is a scheme?

If you ever have to name something, be safe and name it after a person. If you don’t, just try to avoid falling into these bad habits of physics naming.

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7 thoughts on “The Four Ways Physicists Name Things

  1. charlesflorian

    As a mathematician, I have to beg (slightly) to differ. I find that while naming a theorem (or whatever) after a person is a great way of honouring them, it can occasionally be frustrating as it doesn’t tell someone unacquainted with the history anything about the content or meaning thereof.

    If you choose your descriptive names well, on the other hand, then the richness of the language can tell you at least something about the object/theorem/property in question—consider the french word “étale” as is used in algebraic geometry, or more generally the term “smooth”, or a “sheaf” or a “bundle”. These can be wonderfully descriptive, and give a good feel for what the concepts are.

    Of course, on the other hand, within mathematics at least, we have the proliferation of all things “normal” or “regular”, which are awful. At their worse, they lead to the completely valid description of a scheme being both reduced and irreducible…

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      I do tend to like good descriptive names, with fiber bundles and quivers being especially evocative ones. If you can find a good descriptive name, that beats all of these options. They’re not exactly common, though.

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