Dorky Poll: Dorky Nomenclature

Wow, am I cranky today, or what?

To make up for the previous three tediously political posts, here's a more light-hearted physics poll question:

What's the dorkiest term in physics?

Physicists have no real flair for naming things-- either you get dull and prosaic names ("up" and "down" quarks), or strained attempts to be cute ("strange" and "charm" quarks). As a result, there are lots of dorky terms in physics, but what is the very dorkiest?

My vote goes to the Dirac notation for wavefunctions.

This one requires a little explanation: the Dirac notation comes out of the fact that certain operations in quantum physics are traditionally represented by putting a given quantity in angle brackets, like so:

< x >

This means "multiply the operator in question by the wavefunction on the right, the complex conjugate of the wavefuncton on the left, and integrate the whole thing over all space." The Dirac notation makes this more obvious, by representing a wavefunction as a half-bracket:

| Ψ >

and the complex conjugate as a mirror-image half-bracket:

< Ψ !

The operation normally represented by the angle bracket is then written like so:

< x > = < Ψ | x | Ψ >

so the angle-bracket form is obvious.

Where's the dorkiness? Well, the representation "| Ψ >" is called a "ket," and "< Ψ | " is called a "bra." Put them together, and you have "bra" + "ket" = "bracket."




I think that's hard to top, but maybe somebody else out there can come up with a dorkier bit of nomenclature. What's your suggestion?


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"Physicists have no real flair for naming things"

But mathematicians are even worse. My algebra professor had a short rant once about this. He was saying how physicists get cool names like black hole, supernova, quark, etc., but mathematicians stick to boring stuff. For example, check out the list of things that are called "normal" in math:

The only quirky/dorky math term I can think of is clopen.

Naming? Mathematicians can't even handle pronunciation. I remember one instructor whose pronunciations of "rational" and "irrational" could not reliably be distinguished. Since we were doing real analysis, that was a bit of a problem.

By Johan Larson (not verified) on 04 Jan 2008 #permalink

So, I read the poll question and immediately thought, "bra and ket." Then I read further down and saw you had the same answer.

It's a no-brainer, really.

I've heard of things in < > as being in "Brokets" because they're broken brackets.

Also, I'm not sure that I can tell how much of CS terminology is inherently dorky, and how much is dorky BECAUSE it's CS terminology.

is calling ! "bang" because it made a loud noise on old line printers dorky? Does "Black Magic" count as dorky? "Mung"? (pronounced "munj" and stands for "Mung Until No Good") "Tweak" "Twiddle" and "Frob"? see the hacker's dictionary for more info...

In the words of Hobbes "I like to say quark. Quark, quark, quark, quark."

I guess you can't give them credit for that, but I stealing words from the best wordmakerupper since Lewis Carroll is never a bad idea.

My nominee: "bang-bang control." SO much less interesting than the James Bondian name suggests.

A bang-bang controller is a controller that switches abruptly between two states. These controllers may be realized in terms of any element that provides hysteresis.

As an undergrad, my quantum professor made the really bad joke, that in life, as in quantum mechanics, whatever in is a "bra" is always very "complex".

We have some pretty silly acronyms too, like WIMP (Weakly Interacting Massive Partice) and MACHO (MAssive Compact Halo Object).

Is the "bra" in "bra" + "ket" pronounced like in bracket or is it pronounced like the Victorias Secret clothing?

Is the "bra" in "bra" + "ket" pronounced like in bracket or is it pronounced like the Victorias Secret clothing?

Like the item of clothing, for extra bonus tittering when introduced to a class of (generally male) sophomores.

In my QM class, the prof made a remark about "bra space." There was a lot of tittering by the class of (generally male) juniors/seniors. Of course, then the jokes started about "panty space," and how most of us male physics majors didn't have much "experimental data" about this mysterious space, and that all of our theories about how to access the space have failed miserably.

(Hopefully this comment is not too risque)

BTW, the prof wasn't making the jokes during the lecture, the students were after class.

my EE prof informed us that physicists use "i" for the square root of -1, while engineers use "j" why? because "i" is reserved for current... which starts with a "c"...
not really dorky, but confusing and silly.

also, math related, an improper fraction is a "dolly"
because it's top heavy

I don't know if this is confined to physics, but I think that it's pretty dorky that the unit for electrical conductance used to be the "mho", the backwards spelling of "ohm", the unit for electrical resistance. For non-physicists, conductance is the inverse of resistance.

The absolute worst? Easy: the "Kamiltonian".

FWIW I always thought the "mho" was cute. My graduate QM prof would never say "bra" for fear it was offensive. He always called it the "b-r-a".

That prof's name? Jack Ng. I kid you not.

By Mr. Upright (not verified) on 04 Jan 2008 #permalink

I think the "ever more superlative" naming scheme that we have going for telescopes is pretty dorky. When watching the movie "Contact", my sister leaned over to me at one point and whispered, "What does VLA stand for?" I told her: "Very Large Array." "No, you're kidding."

The Europeans have the VLT (Very Large Telescope). (4 of them, in fact.) Then there is CELT (the California Extremely Large Telescope), under development. So the Europeans come back with OWL (the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope). What do you do after that? The WMBKHAT? (Way-Momma Butt Kick Huge Ass Telescope.)

As mentioned above, WIMP and MACHO are also pretty damn dorky.

Over in music-land, there are hemidemisemiquavers (a.k.a. 64th-notes).

By Johan Larson (not verified) on 04 Jan 2008 #permalink

Vacuum chamber parts - the elbow, the half nipple, the full nipple, the conical reducing nipple, etc.

Makes me want to scribe a "<|" onto a nipple now...

I claim "Tweak, Twiddle, and Frob," for the Electrical Engineering Empire, thank you very much. They are inherently analog terms, after all-- the canonical example is the adjustment of oscilloscope knobs.

But, to have an actual contribution for this, I give you the notion of male and female connectors. Which would be unremarkable, except that, if you're a member of the secret brotherhood, you realize that such terminology is quite limited and needs to be... and indeed has been... expanded.

But none of you know the secret handshake.

By John Novak (not verified) on 04 Jan 2008 #permalink

#18 shows why British musicians are insane. But American musicians have to deal with supertonic (the second scale degree, immediately above tonic), and use Simple far too often (simple meter, simple verse-chorus, simple binary, simple ternary, simple rondo (small and large), etc.) in which "simple" means different things.

Concerning the term bra-ket, you could arque quite a long time whether Dirac was being a snarky mathematician or electrical engineer rather than a snarky physicist when he coined that term, but it was about as droll as he ever got - unless you count referring to Eugene Wigner as his famous brother-in-law.

In any case, Dirac's terminology is better than just calling them "pointy brackets", to distinguish them from [square], {curly}, or (bowlegs). One thing I sometimes wonder about is which came first, their use in physics to denote a vector in a Hilbert space or their use in mathematics to denote a regular vector.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 04 Jan 2008 #permalink

Nuclear cross-section (actually interaction probability) is measured by area so that a neutron flux or fluence measured in particles per second per unit area multiplied by cross-section gives interaction rate in interactions per second.

Cross-section is measured in units called barns; one barn 10-24 cm2. The naming comes from the phrase "you couldn't hit the broad side of a barn."

In a related bit of theory, a lot of work was put into modeling the process of slowing down (moderating) neutrons by "bouncing" them off similarly-sized atoms. The measure of energy lost in a collision was expressed as u = ln(E0 / E) where E0 is an arbitrarily-determined energy and u is termed neutron lethargy.

I contend that from its earliest days, nuclear physics has been a haven for drunks and the insane. My suspicion is that Planck bought the first round and they haven't stopped drinking since... :)

When dealing with neutrinos, barn is too big a unit. Therefore there is a smaller unit, 10-48 cm2, called 'shed'.

But why is it that most of these dorky names seem to be spillovers from engineering?

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 05 Jan 2008 #permalink

That prof's name? Jack Ng. I kid you not.

Ng are three Cantonese surnames: a syllabic consonant with three different tones. As in "ng?", "ng!?!", "ng!" or the like. At least one of them corresponds to Mandarin Wú (roughly "oo?").

I know a genetics professor who likes to call the two DNA strands "Watson" and "Crick".

Half a byte (4 bits) is a nybble. Honestly.

Get a good look at what the geneticists have wrought, for example a gene called SUPERMAN and another called KRYPTONITE.

Species names in biology are full of jokes, too...

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 05 Jan 2008 #permalink

I should have mentioned there's a gene called mothers against decapentaplegic.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 05 Jan 2008 #permalink

You missed a piece. If |s> is a state and O is an operator then we have the equation
= = C" where C" is known as a "C" number for constant. Hence the accurate renditions is bra + C + ket = bracket!
And the dorkiest things in physics are polhode/herpolhode.

"Degenerate" -- in the Physics sense. Not referring to the bra jokes, nipple references, nor "panty space."

I like "Degree of Freedom" [The least number of mutually independent parameters (coordinates) required to uniquely define a material system's position in space, time, etc.] but it does sound like a PhD in Anarchy. James Bond, again, has a government-issued Degree of Freedom, also known as a License to Kill.

Which leads to Killing Vector.

Good title for a science fiction novel.

Half a byte (4 bits) is a nybble. Honestly.

There are extensions in the other direction, too: 16 bits is a playte and 32 bits is a dynner.

The phenomenon Rob (#17) describes happens in the opposite direction too, although the names are not as colorful. There are various proposals (so far none have passed the paper stage) for missions with lots of small satellites, the size and number being anticorrelated. These proposals started with microsatellites, later versions included nanosatellites, and I have heard at least one proposal call for picosatellites.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 Jan 2008 #permalink

Poynting vector. Like, what else could it do, man?

Nybble (half a Byte)

Speaking of male and female connectors, at my second real job (in about '81) the daughter cards plugged into the motherboard with hermaphrodite connectors. Parse *that*, Sigmund!

By Fred the Fourth (not verified) on 05 Jan 2008 #permalink

@30: Nanosatellites (mass below 50 kg) have been around for a long time. For example, the UoSAT series from the University of Surrey started over 20 years ago. They are cheap to launch, because they replace lumps of dead mass that would otherwise be needed to balance a rocket. Their mission is limited by the orbit, which is dictated by the primary satellite(s) of the launch.

@31: Strictly speaking, the Poynting Vector isn't dorky. It is named after its inventor:

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 05 Jan 2008 #permalink

#29 reminded me that physics is not the only place with such references. French trappers in the western US must have lacked as much female companionship as theoretical physicists, given that they name a mountain range the Grand Tetons. Translate it.

#32 (and #31): Remember, Poynting likely did not name it after himself. Would we teach it in freshman physics if it was not such a clever pun? Plus, as someone who rarely read the book before class, I wrote "pointing vector" in my notes the first time I heard it in class. I use that example to explain why I always write key terms on the board, and why it is a good idea to skim a chapter before class.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 06 Jan 2008 #permalink

When I started teaching QM, I decided I had no use for Dirac's dorkiness, so I called them "kets" and "dual kets." I think this actually helps the students conceptually, since the dual kets are state vectors with the same physical content as the ket. Why give them a separate name.

Of course, once one dispenses with bras, there's not much need for kets, so now I just tend to refer to them as "vector" (or "state vector" for long) and "duel vector". Hammers the linear algebra foundation, and never gets wordy or awkward, in practice.

My thesis adviser took QM from Dirac, and referred to the "bra-ket" as the only joke Dirac ever told.