By Any Other Name

Natural History Magazine

by Neil deGrasse Tyson

From Natural History Magazine, July/August 2001

The chief merit of language is clearness, and we know that nothing detracts so much from this as do unfamiliar terms.

— Galen (AD 129–ca.216)

Do you know what term medical doctors have for one of the bones in your big toe? Ungual phalanx of the hallux. Do you know the official term that astrophysicists use for the beginning of the universe? Big Bang. Why does it take nine syllables to name a bone in your toe but only two syllables to name the origin of all the space, time, matter and energy in the cosmos? Something is wrong.

Doctors are not uniquely guilty of sesquipedalian transgressions, but they certainly lead the way. The community of astrophysicists, however, proudly wields simple words, even for our most complex concepts. Not only do our terms typically have few syllables, they also tend to be descriptive and, in some cases, just fun to say. Medicine and astrophysics are probably polar opposites in the name game, with other professions filling the middle.

Despite the scowls of my geologist colleagues, I have not managed to remember what plagioclase feldspar looks like, and I am still wondering what's so friendly about migmatitic gneiss. Perhaps geologists should pass a law against words of more than eight syllables. That way, I would never have to pronounce uniformitarianism, whether or not it's an important doctrine.

When ichthyologists go home at night, do they see Carassius auratus instead of goldfish swimming in their fishbowls? Can anyone get more obscure than biologists and paleontologists, who reflect for thirteen syllables on whether or not ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny? In such cases, you feel especially ignorant, because you trip over the words just trying to pronounce them. Should I confess to the authorities, here and now, that I have occasionally snorted oxymetazoline hydrochloride? Yes, I inhaled all ten-syllables as the active ingredient in my nasal decongestant spray.

And how about those dozen roses I just gave my wife? Do botanists give each other a dozen Rosa nutkana instead? One of the best known lines in Shakespeare is the romantic utterance of Juliet, who declared that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. True, but what she neglected to mention is that a rose by a five-syllable botanical classification scheme rarely makes its way into iambic pentameter.

The parade of extinct species, with names from Archaeopteryx to Zalambdalestes, would leave most heads spinning, although one of the great mysteries of the universe is how eight-year-old kids seem to have no trouble with the taxonomy of extinct ferocious beasts.

Sociologists, professional educators, and literary critics are just as bad (or perhaps worse) than scientists. Is there some tablet in the sky upon which is inscribed a commandment requiring a sociologists to refer to your neighbor as a residential propinquitist? Accuse someone in New York City of being one, and you might suffer a bruised jaw—or would that be a mandibular contusion? When I was a schoolboy, the one-syllable word test did the job. Today you can hardly find the term in the discourse of professional educators. A test has become an assessment instrument. And much as I have tried, I still cannot understand the following randomly chosen passage in the 1991 book Deconstruction: Theory & Practice, by Christopher Norris, a British professor of English.

But the point of these metaphors is not to reinstate a thematics of presence or expression, as opposed to the difference of structural inscription. Rather it is to demonstrate that structuralism itself arises from the break with an attitude (the phenomenological) it cannot reject but must perpetually put into question.

Maybe it's not a beginners' book on deconstruction. Maybe beginners' books don't exist on the subject. Or maybe I'm just stupid, and all the people who speak this way are brilliant thinkers. If not, then their work is easier to understand than they let on, and their jargon erects a downright opaque psychological boundary between those who know and those who don't.

The renowned physicist Richard Feynman, in a essay entitled What is Science written for a 1969 issue of The Physics Teacher, recalled a childhood conversation with a friend:

We were playing in the fields and this boy said to me, See that bird standing on the stump there? What's the name of it? I said, I haven't got the slightest idea. He said, It's a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you much about science. I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that that...even if you know all [the] names for it, you still know nothing about the bird.... Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country... and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

Feynman's dad was basically right, but if we take his argument to the extreme, we would all stare at each other, mute in the forest. So we obviously need words for things before we can communicate ideas that relate to them. And in the sciences, words for things can be precise, historical, and even illuminating. But I remain intrigued that in social settings such as cocktail parties, you will impress people more with the obscurity of your vocabulary than with your actual command of a body of knowledge.

I submit that the widespread public interest in cosmic discovery, measured by frequency of headlines, may be fueled partly by the transparency of astrophysical jargon. When writing a newspaper article, a journalist can swiftly reach the substance without wasting precious column length introducing and defining terms. Our simple and occasionally fun jargon uncloaks what are truly complex concepts and grants the reporter and the public an opportunity to think about the ideas rather than on the names of things.

Astrophysicists eschew big words and the general latinization of terms—although I wonder if our vocabulary would be different if Latin were a living, vibrant language. In any case, we simply tell it like it is. We started with the big bang, but let's keep going: What do we officially call big red stars? Red giants. How about big blue stars? Blue giants. Or small white stars? White dwarfs.

How about that official term for spots on the Sun's surface? Sunspots. Or that persistent red spot in Jupiter's atmosphere? Jupiter's Great Red Spot.

Want dark mysteries? We call the early period in the universe—the time before the first stars were born—the dark ages. Ninety percent of all the gravity in the universe comes from a substance that neither emits nor absorbs light in any form. We call the offending stuff dark matter. And the universe is not only expanding but was recently discovered to be accelerating as well, by the action of an unknown energy that fills the vacuum of space. What else could we call it but dark energy?

While we are being dark, let me mention that there are regions of the universe where the gravitational forces are so strong that if you fell in you would never come out. So strong is the gravity that space and time have curved back on themselves, preventing not only you, but even light, from escaping. I challenge you to invent a better term than black hole.

The way astrophysicists name gas clouds and star clusters in our own Milky Way galaxy is not fundamentally different from what you did as a kid as you lay on the beach gazing at the puffy cumulus clouds that drifted by. Our list is rich in simple imagery. Want a sampling? We've got the Cat's Eye Nebula, the Crab Nebula, the Dumbbell Nebula, the Eagle Nebula, the Horsehead Nebula, the Lagoon Nebula, the North American Nebula, the Ring Nebula, the Tarantula Nebula, and the Veil Nebula. We even name entire galaxies this way, such as the Pinwheel Galaxy, the Sombrero Galaxy, and the Whirlpool Galaxy. Sure, each of these objects has an official numerical designation in a formally compiled catalog. But in professional research publications and in scientific parlance, the formal designation is not a substitute for the common, descriptive term (when one is available).

Whenever specialized vocabulary is simple and fun, the words can slide into the language of commerce and culture. This fact has placed the names of our most cherished objects and concepts within reach of everyone. The list is long and impressive. Who among you has not sipped Celestial Seasonings tea? Or taken a bath using Moon Glow bath beads? I have yet to taste Kentucky Fried Chicken's recently introduced Big Bang sandwich, but I can imagine that its flavor must be intense.

Even so, no matter how accurate Pulsar brand watches are advertised to be, their timekeeping precision pales in comparison with the original rapidly rotating neutron stars of the same name. Black holes are what people perceive as one-way phenomena, such as, paying taxes or feeding the financial needs of teenagers. And no matter how quickly my Quasar brand microwave oven cooks my food, the original quasars at the edge of the universe would cook it much, much faster.

Of course, stars twinkled in the sky long before the noun star and the verb star ever applied to movie actors.

I am too young to have driven Ford's Galaxie 500, a protoype of the land-yacht, but my wife's first car was a Chevy Nova. I believe that if General Motors knew that a Nova was a star that had just exploded, they might have reconsidered the name.

Saturn automobiles remain as popular as the planet itself. We know the company is named after the planet and not the god because the company's logo is a tilted, stylized, ringed orb. The real Saturn is light enough for any sized scoop of it to float on water. I wonder (although don't really wish to test) whether the Saturn car will float, too.

Mercury is an entire division of the Ford Motor Company, while the Mitsubishi Corporation has a car called the Eclipse. And the peculiar connect-the-dots diagram on the back of all Subaru automobiles is a representation of the famous Pleiades star cluster in the constellation Taurus. Indeed the Japanese call the Pleiades Subaru.

No doubt the most famous molecule in biology is deoxyribonucleic acid—ten syllables. Even when abbreviated, it still has three syllables: D-N-A. Has anyone adopted this term for anything besides science writing? To sell products? To write a jingle? As of this printing, there are no cars named after latinized biological species or medicinal ingredients.

Of course we in the astrophysics community are not totally without polysyllabic guilt. In the Germanic tradition of slapping words together to make an even bigger word, some of our terms can make strong men weep. My favorite in this category is magnetohydrodynamics, which is the study of plasmas and their interplay with electromagnetic fields. In this particular case, the subdiscipline happens to be as complicated as the word that describes it.

By the way, we also have some misleading terms—such as planetary nebula, which has nothing whatever to do with planets. William Herschel first observed and described these nebulae in the eighteenth century, with the help of the world's then-largest telescope. The circular fuzzy disks loosely resembled the little circular images of planets he had studied.

We also use the first word in the phrase amateur astronomer to mean something different from what you might expect. While you probably wouldn't be drawn to an advertisement for an amateur neurosurgeon or an amateur attorney, you are always in good hands with an amateur astronomer. It's a title worn proudly by those for whom the night sky is a playground of objects and phenomena. Amateur astronomers, as a group, monitor the sky more than anybody else, professionals included. In so doing, they discover and track comets, asteroids, supernovas, variable stars, and all manner of transient cosmic phenomena. They are indispensable to the health of the field.

Astrophysicists also use at least one term that makes chemists cry. We freely describe the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen in the centers of stars as burning. Since the act of burning is a strictly chemical process, and since what goes on in the center of a star is strictly nuclear, we are guilty as charred.

And we do have one or two tongue twisters. In case you didn't know, Earth, the Moon, and the Sun are in syzygy every time they line up in space. And our official term for the angle between Earth's equator and the plane of Earth's orbit around the Sun is the obliquity of the ecliptic—but we are not proud of this fact.

Among its numerous duties, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the professional society of the world's astrophysicists, makes the rules of nomenclature. In many cases, however, a naming scheme or term gets established only after it has enjoyed wide use by the profession. Consequently, rules by the IAU are often the formal recognition of an already existent naming trend. This approach to the jargon of a discipline tends to preserve the history, spontaneity, and novelty in scientific discourse. For these reasons, cosmic discovery will likely remain attractive and accessible to the general public and to the creative energies of authors, artists, and producers.

We might therefore credit (in part) the public's vicarious joy in cosmic discovery to the astrophysicist's monosyllabic lexicon—an assortment of terms that by any other names would leave you stalled in the dictionary, more in awe of the words than the concepts themselves.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose Director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium.