You’re all familiar with Dr. Isis, also of ScienceBlogs? She likes cute things. She likes science. Despite the fact that I’m a so-square-I’m-practically-cubic reactionary, I like both of those things too. But when physicists try to make their physics cute it’s a cringe-worthy disaster waiting to happen.
In the mail today was a flier from the city municipal water supply. It contained information about the various tested properties of the city water, including contaminant levels and that sort of thing. Among the properties listed was:
Diluted Conductance: 882 μmhos/cm
*Cringe* What they’re measuring is electrical conductance, which is the inverse of electrical resistance. An object with high resistance will have low conductance and vice versa. The unit of resistance is the ohm, named after a guy named Ohm. And so some physicist decided it would be cute to call the unit for conductance the mho. Because it’s ohm backwards.
Ok, ok. It’s not too bad, even if it’s a little more of a groaner pun than I like. And I like puns. There’s also always the official non-pun name of the unit of conductance: the siemens, named after a guy named (guess what!) Siemens. But there’s worse out there.
There’s a unit of cross-sectional area used in nuclear physics equal to a trillionth of a trillionth of a square centimeter. It’s roughly the cross-section of a heavy atomic nucleus, and it’s used to discuss interactions with incoming particles. You could say in some ways it’s a measure of how easy it is to hit a nucleus with a projectile like a neutron. A big nucleus is as easy to hit as the broad side of a barn. And the unit is called the barn, for exactly that reason. I have no evidence, but I blame Feynman anyway.
Then the 70s came along and apparently a bunch of physicists were hitting the acid pretty hard when they named the quarks. “Quark” is itself pretty bonkers, coming as it does from a novel that may or may not actually have anything so bourgeois as “characters” or “a plot”. The first two quarks were named the “up” quark and “down” quark. This is just acceptable. The next two quarks were named the “charm” and “strange” quarks. Really that’s right up there with naming your children Dweezil and Moon Unit. There was an abortive attempt to name the next two quarks “truth” and “beauty” but I like to think the earth opened and swallowed whoever proposed that and their graduate students got the message and renamed them to the marginally more sedate “top” and “bottom” quarks. These days the quarks are often just referred to by letters: t quarks and such.
There’s probably more but I’m too deranged by these to remember them. At least physics didn’t produce the worst offender in the Horrible Named Things In Science category. I’m pretty sure biology did.
UPDATE: Lots of good discussion in the comments, including the fact that the guy who named that worst offender was Francis Crick, a physicist by training. I also forgot to mention the penguin diagrams of particle physcs. You think I was joking that people would have to be on something to come up with this stuff, but accoring to the guy who made this one up he was using “some illegal substance” at the time.