The other day, while we were walking from my office back to the lab, one of my students asked me a question that’s perfect for a Dorky Poll:

What’s the coolest single word you’ve encountered in physics?

His vote was for “antineutrino,” but I’ve got to go with “counterintuitive,” as in “Stimulated Raman Adiabatic Passage uses a counterintuitive pulse sequence to excite atoms without populating the intermediate state,” or “the idea of making atoms cold by shining laser light on them is somewhat counterintuitive.”

“Counterintuitive” captures a lot of what I enjoy most about physics. We work with a small number of very general rules that govern the way the world works, and those rules don’t have a great deal of flexibility. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t surprises, though– if you’re clever enough, you can find ways to exploit those rules to give you results that seem to fly in the face of common sense. And yet, those results are every bit as inevitable as the common-sense result that objects dropped near the surface of the earth will fall under the influence of gravity.

That’s what I find cool in physics, and so I think “counter-intuitive” is the coolest single word I’ve run into in the field.

What’s your favorite physics word?

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan
    June 22, 2007

    Perturbation
    It gives me a delightful mental image of taking some monstrous complicated system and poking a corner of it with one finger, then predicting how the finger poke is going to change the overall behavior (up to order finger-poke^3).

  2. #2 Josh
    June 22, 2007

    There’s two ways to go with this: either a technical purely physics word, like “anti-neutrino”, or a normal word that we use a lot or in a slightly(or very) different way, like “counterintuitive”.

    Anyway, I’ll put in a vote for “anti-red”, as referring to quark charges. Actually, while I’m at it, “quark” is a pretty awesome word, too.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    June 22, 2007

    Perturbation
    It gives me a delightful mental image of taking some monstrous complicated system and poking a corner of it with one finger, then predicting how the finger poke is going to change the overall behavior (up to order finger-poke^3).

    When I talk to our first-year seminar class about BEC, I note that there’s a certain similarity between physicists and small children: when presented with a new substance, their first instinct is to poke it and see what happens. Hence, the early BEC experiments in which the Ketterle group pushed their condensate with a laser, and watched it wiggle back and forth.

  4. #4 onymous
    June 22, 2007

    “Degenerate winos”.

  5. #5 Rob Knop
    June 22, 2007

    homoeoid

  6. #6 Archaeogeek
    June 22, 2007

    Whilst not physics, I’m a big fan of the term oscillating snout, used to describe the behaviour of a glacier. It makes me think of glaciers as huge furry creatures, which is obviously accurate.

  7. #7 Xanthir, FCD
    June 22, 2007

    “sparticle”.

    “THIS! IS! THEORETICAL PHYSICS!”

  8. #8 Stephen
    June 22, 2007

    Herpolhode

    From Goldstein’s Classical Mechanics:

    “Hence the Jabberwockian-sounding statement: the polhode rolls without slipping on the herpolhode lying in the invariable plane”

  9. #9 Cryptic Ned
    June 22, 2007

    Biology and chemistry offer more opportunity for awesome words.

    Kallikrein
    Bradykinin
    Cyclooxygenase
    Thromboxane
    Dithiothreitol
    Maleimide

    I’ll think of more later.

  10. #10 jk
    June 22, 2007

    I’d have to say “quark” too, mainly because it’s the only physics word that came from a James Joyce novel.

  11. #11 Ben M
    June 22, 2007

    #1: Ergodicity.

    Also:
    Polytrope.
    Odderon, Pomeron, Reggeon, Sphaleron.
    Cepheid.
    Bose-Einstein Condensate.
    Fano factor.
    Nongetterable.

  12. #12 Adam
    June 22, 2007

    Boojums. David Mermin is awesome.

  13. #13 marciepooh
    June 22, 2007

    VibraSeis and Love wave

    VibraSeis trucks are used as the “sound” source for some land geophysical surveys. The Love wave (or SH wave) is the transverse wave with movement parallel to the ground surface that is created under certain conditions in an earthquake.

    Like Cyrptic Ned, I’d like to throw in some non-physics words, try retrodeformational, subcrop, stereonet, Emuckfaw group and Gumsuck Branch anticline. Geologist get to cheat since we name stratigraphy (and sometimes structures) by the type location. Steronet is cool mostly because it can cause entire rooms of non-strucutural geologist to run screaming from the room.

  14. #14 dr. dave
    June 22, 2007

    It’s always the German ones that do it for me, from wahrscheinlichkeit to zitterbewegung.

  15. #15 Natalie
    June 22, 2007

    Well, I was going to say “quark” because it’s such a fun little word, but there are so many better ones being mentioned that I’ll have to reserve judgment until I see a more complete list of candidates! (Sparticle is currently high on the list, as is boojums – that’s a real word?)

  16. #16 Eric
    June 22, 2007

    Embiggen.
    Non-renormalizable, because it sort of sounds like a word to describe a person with an untreatable mental illness.
    Also, anisotropy, compactification, torque, and others, in no apparent order and for no apparent reason. While not technically one word, and perhaps not so exciting in its own right, some classmates and I decided that the phrase “nominally monochromatic neutrons” would be a pretty good name for a band (someone had to give that as a reason for something, right?).
    And speaking of German ones, for some reason the name “Institut fur Experimentalphysik” always makes me chuckle.

  17. #17 Jocelyn
    June 22, 2007

    Fugacity!

  18. #18 Philip
    June 22, 2007

    I dunno if it’s strictly a physics term, but I’ve always liked googolplex.

    A boojum, by the way, is also a tree, called cirio in Spanish, that grows only in northern Baja California (beginning about 200 km from the border and extending another 200 km south), on the coast of Sonora in mainland Mexico, and on a few islands in between. It needs very little water to survive (duh), grows very, very slowly, and looks like an enormous (up to 20 m) horseradish root with tiny little twigs sticking out of its trunk. The name comes from Lewis Carroll, I think; maybe from “Jabberwocky.”

  19. #19 Ahcuah
    June 22, 2007

    I always likes “contravariant”. I guess it’s being replaced these days, though, by the dual vector/one-forms language.

  20. #20 theophylact
    June 22, 2007

    Well, I like “enantiotopic”, because I invented it, but “falsifiable” is the cat’s pajamas.

  21. #21 Justin
    June 22, 2007

    Sputtering.

  22. #22 Lou
    June 22, 2007

    I’ve always liked magnetohydrodynamics because its the toughest thing I’ve ever studied and the only thing I ever understood about it was the name.

    But for coolest I’m fond of chirality. It’s a fun word that I actually wish more people knew, because ‘whether something cares if it is right or left handed’ is a lot of words to have to use. This was best illustrated by a story.

    We are at the Boston RenFaire and my wife finds a leather hair clip thingy that she likes. But the clip is aligned so as to be put on with the right hand, and she’s a lefty. I turn to the guy behind the counter and, start to say something like, ‘My wife is left-handed, do you one of these that is designed to be put on with the other hand…’ assuming I’m going to get a quizzical look. Instead after the words ‘left-handed’ he interrupts with, ‘Nope, only one chirality.’ I love RenFaires. Being a geek has unexpected pleasures.

    [Bizarre aside. Firefox's built in spell checker has no problem with magnetohydrodynamics but is balking at chirality?]

  23. #23 Harry
    June 22, 2007

    I really like phonon (not phoTon, bun phoNon) because it’s very calming to say. “Susceptibility” is pretty nice, too.

    I will say my least favorite word is “elementary”, such as “elementary solid state physics”. It’s a value judgement that professional physicists shouldn’t be allowed to make.

  24. #24 C. Birkbeck
    June 22, 2007

    Positron, just off the top of my head.

    It just sounds cool.

  25. #25 andy.s
    June 23, 2007

    Hyperfine?
    Gluons?
    Strange Attractors?
    Charmonium?

  26. #26 CaptainBooshi
    June 23, 2007

    First, I feel obligated to mention this old Onion article:
    “Raving Lunatic Obviously Took Some Advanced Physics”

    Beyond that, I can’t think of any words that haven’t already been mentioned, although that might just be because it’s 5:30 AM and I’m sleepy (I just had to check my RSS feed before I went to bed!).

  27. #27 goffredo
    June 23, 2007

    Hi. My favorite word, ever since my high school days, a long time ago, is “interaction”. I still get the shivers when I introduce it to my first year University students.

  28. #28 CCPhysicist
    June 24, 2007

    One thing this thread demonstrates is that the second thing a physicist does, right after poking the thing, is to give a name to the result. That is the start of the “stamp collecting” phase of science. The first step in communication is to share a name for a thing. When it is a funny name for a common thing, like “chiral” for handedness, so much the better.

    Like Chad, counterintuitive has always been a favorite of mine because it baffles students when I use it in an intro class to describe a demo I just did. Six syllables is a lot for those texters! I also like telling them the cross product obeys a non-Abelian algebra.

    Some of those listed (like boojum) were borrowed or invented just to sound cool, after the success of “quark” and “charm”. The decade after November 1974 was thick with them.

    [Note to newbies: track down the April 1974 AIP proceedings with the short paper about charm with the "eat your hats" bet, and read the theoretical commentary with its Rove-like dismissal of that "charming" idea. You might not realize just how radical and unpopular the idea was.]

    I had forgotten about polhode. Technical terms like “winding number” are great when used in public. I wonder what people in the restaurant think when my wife and I are talking about making adjustments in the luminosity channel (in PhotoShop). [What cable system do they have?]

    One I really like is “eigenvalue”, because we adopted a german translation of an english phrase when that math was rediscovered by german physicists, and it found its way all the way back into our math textbooks!

  29. #29 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 24, 2007

    I also like Physics words designed to sound ordinary, but subtly cool. Barn, Charm, Clone, Condensate, Dark energy, Doping, Entangle, Fermi gas, Glass, Glue, Jet, Optical lattice, Quintessence, Spin, Squeezed, Strange, Stripe, Strong, Tao, Trap, Tweezers, Walk… and things named after people with cool names…

    #28: hence “eigenfunction” and “eigensolution” and the like.

    MathWorld lists (with hotlinks to a page on each):

    Eigen Decomposition ( Wolfram MathWorld )
    The matrix decomposition of a square matrix A into so-called eigenvalues and eigenvectors is an extremely important one. This decomposition generally goes under the name …

    Eigen Decomposition Theorem ( Wolfram MathWorld )
    Let P be a matrix of eigenvectors of a given square matrix A and D be a diagonal matrix with the corresponding eigenvalues on the diagonal. Then, as long as P is a square …

    Eigenvalue ( Wolfram MathWorld )
    Eigenvalues are a special set of scalars associated with a linear system of equations (i.e., a matrix equation) that are sometimes also known as characteristic roots, …

    Eigenvector ( Wolfram MathWorld )
    Eigenvectors are a special set of vectors associated with a linear system of equations (i.e., a matrix equation) that are sometimes also known as characteristic vectors, …

    Singular Value Decomposition ( Wolfram MathWorld )
    If a matrix A has a matrix of eigenvectors P that is not invertible (for example, the matrix [1 1; 0 1] has the noninvertible system of eigenvectors [1 0; 0 0]), then A does …

    Eigenform ( Wolfram MathWorld )
    Given a differential operator D on the space of differential forms, an eigenform is a form alpha such that Dalpha==lambdaalpha for some constant lambda. For example, on the …

    Eigenfunction ( Wolfram MathWorld )
    If L^~ is a linear operator on a function space, then f is an eigenfunction for L^~ and lambda is the associated eigenvalue whenever L^~f==lambdaf.Renteln and Dundes (2005) …

    Eigenspace ( Wolfram MathWorld )
    If A is an nxn square matrix and lambda is an eigenvalue of A, then the union of the zero vector 0 and the set of all eigenvectors corresponding to eigenvalues lambda is a …

    And some others.

    Travel in Eigenspace. Battle of Eigenspace. Russell Eigenblick: tyrant of Eigenspace. I was a teenaged dropout from the Physics Department, decomposing in Eigenspace…

  30. #30 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 24, 2007

    Professor Philip Vos Fellman emailed me from Southern New Hampshire University to suggest that we mathematize a little more and get “eigen-charm.”

    Along with Eigenvalue, the Germans also gave us the cool word Bremsstrahlung.

    Some other false cognates, which are cool because civilians think they know, but don’t, when Physicists talk. And they don’t know that they don’t know what we just said!

    Jonathan Vos Post’s Partial List of Words that Physicists Use When they Speak in Code, Version 1.0:

    Aberration
    Absolute uncertainty
    Accurate (vs. Precise)
    Accretion
    Action
    Aerosol
    Airy Disk
    Annihilation
    B-factory
    Beam
    Blackbody
    Body Wave
    Boom
    Bottom
    Bound
    Brightness
    Capacity
    Caustic
    Charge
    Chief Ray
    Closed system
    Cluster
    Compensator
    Coercivity
    Coherent
    Concidence (pointed out in another thread)
    Color
    Condensed Matter
    Condensers
    Confinement
    Conservative
    Critical
    Critical Phenomenon
    Criticality
    Cycle
    Current
    Damping
    Data (vs. Datum)
    Decay
    Degenerate
    Degree of Freedom
    Dimensional
    Dispersion
    Displacement
    Domain
    Down
    Drag
    Eccentric
    Einstein (unit; any other eponynmous unit)
    Engine
    Ensemble
    Error
    Ether
    Evanescent Wave
    Event
    Extensive property (in Thermodynamics)
    Extraordinary Ray
    Fictitious force
    Field
    Fine Structure Constant
    Finesse Coefficient
    Flavor
    Flux
    Foam
    Fountain Effect
    Frame
    Free Space
    Fried Length
    Frozen
    Fusion (as a phase transition)
    Gain
    Gal
    Gauge
    Gee
    Gel
    Generation
    Ghost
    Glass
    Glueball
    Grating
    Gravity Wave
    Grid
    Half-Infinite
    Hall
    Heat
    Ideal
    Impedance
    Inclination
    Induction
    Inelastic
    Inertia
    Inflation
    Intensive variable
    Interference
    Law (vs. Hypothesis, Theory)
    Laser Cooling
    Laser Trapping
    Latent Heat
    Limit
    Luminosity
    Mass
    Micro (not as vs Macro, but as 10^-6)
    Microwave (nt the kitchen appliance)
    Mixer
    Mole
    Moment
    Neutral
    Normal
    Operational definition
    Optical Activity
    Optical Sign
    Ordinary Ray
    Partical
    Penning
    Permittivity
    Phase
    Pitch
    Plasma
    Precise
    Proof
    Proper
    Radioactivity
    Ray
    Reaction
    Reference
    Relative
    Retardance
    Residual
    Resistance
    Resolution
    Roll
    Scale
    Scale-limited
    Scattering
    Screen
    Screw
    Seismic Moment
    Shell
    Shock
    Sink
    Skin
    Slab
    Slit
    Specific
    Spin Glass
    SQUID
    Stable
    State
    State Variable
    Stress
    Strain
    Susceptibility
    Suspension
    Tension
    Theory (though neoDarwinists suffer more)
    Thrust
    Top
    Tracking
    Uncertainty
    Unit
    Virtual image
    Virtual Particle
    Weak Interaction

  31. #31 Thaitanium
    June 25, 2007

    Also in the German kamp…,y vote is for bremsstrahlung

  32. #32 Luke
    June 26, 2007

    How about Floquet theory?

    Vortensity (vorticity per unit surface density) is all the rage in astrophysical disk dynamics. The term was invented by a linguist slumming with astrophysicists. Unfortunately, the term always reminds me of a Ted Nugent album.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.