How do I get the Ookseer Principle?
September 27, 2006 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Van Allen Belts, Brownian Motion, Celsius... How do things get named after scientists?

I assuming that that Scientists don't just say "I, Scientist Joe, have discovered something new! I'm going to call it the ... Joe Effect!" and everyone else goes along with it. (I met Dr. Van Allen a few times and he didn't seem the kind of guy who would do that.) Is there an organized procedure for naming these things (per discipline), or do these names just happen organically (eg: "That radiation belt Van Allen wrote about" becomes "The Van Allen belt")?
posted by Ookseer to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd imagine your latter supposition is close to the truth. Someone publishes their work on something; the work is passed around in the scientific community, debated, reformed and eventually solidified; once the idea becomes more or less accepted, it needs to have a name. Professional courtesy would probably demand it be named after its primary proponent.

Or maybe they just pull names out of a hat.
posted by Shecky at 10:48 AM on September 27, 2006

Having (stupidly) worked in many different fields of science, I've never been clued in on the allowed proceedure for naming things (with the exception of astronomy, which evidently has rules for naming planets and such). I therefore suspect that such rules don't exist. The naming stories that I am aware of bear this out. For instance, quarks were named by Gell-Mann. The reason for the name, and the name itself were both completely bizarre (which is probably why it stuck). Your own Celsius link shows that it was named to honor Celsius long after his death.
posted by Humanzee at 10:55 AM on September 27, 2006

Usually, principles and other fuzzy things are named organically as you suggest. Scientists do frequently try to coin new names for things, just not usually names that refer to themselves.

There are established procedures for naming things such as new elements, new species (and my goodness are they complicated), and new astronomical objects (as has been mentioned).
posted by grouse at 11:33 AM on September 27, 2006

Sometimes they name things for themselves, I think the reversible logic gates the 'Fredkin gate' and the 'Toffoli gate' were named as such in the original 'Conservative logic' paper by Fredkin and Toffoli.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:52 PM on September 27, 2006

Why do roads, rivers and cities carry the names of their 'discoverers'? Why is common to have your last, middle and first name be the namesake of someone related or dear?

I realize this doesn't speak to your question about specific scientific naming processes.. but the larger question, in my mind, is why have we been naming and projecting ourselves for many millennia onto the places, people and objects that surround us..

Or what Shecky said.
posted by jazzkat11 at 5:45 PM on September 27, 2006

You want some examples of scientists naming things crazy names? Check out drosophila developmental biology. There's a gene named Transformer, after the Lou Reed song. Guess what the function of this gene is?

Frizzled, Sonic Hedgehog, and Decapentaplegic are just a few other examples, among many.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:35 PM on September 27, 2006

Actually, in recent years, there's been something of a movement in the physics community towards descriptive names rather than naming things after people.

If I talk about a theory as the Smith-Jones Theory (made-up example AFAIK), that's much less useful than naming the theory after the physical phenomenon it describes. That having been said, when a particular idea is associated strongly with one person, these names still come about, even in recent terms in the organic way you describe.

For a more recent example, "dye-sensitized solar cells" are better known as Graetzel cells after their inventor. This sort of thing happens frequently, and other people generally coin the term.
posted by JMOZ at 7:31 PM on September 27, 2006

Frizzled, Sonic Hedgehog, and Decapentaplegic are just a few other examples, among many.

There's a movement to avoid these as well. I read an article the other day (can't find it now unfortunately) by a clinical geneticist who shuddered at the thought of someday having to tell parents that their new child suffered from "an abnormal sonic hedgehog gene."
posted by grouse at 12:16 AM on September 28, 2006

Weirdly, I work on transformer. For those of you that can't guess, its absence in female flies renders them in all respects male. There's a related gene (my baby) called fruitless, originally called fruity. Guess what this one does!

I've always liked the Drosophila gene names. Mothers-against-decapentaplegic is about as good as it gets.
posted by metaculpa at 3:15 PM on September 28, 2006

Well, the human homologues can have boring names; I'm still waiting until I get to name a gene in the sex determination hierarchy "metrosexual".
posted by metaculpa at 3:16 PM on September 28, 2006

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