Absurd science names and where they come from

The naming of scientific discoveries can seem, at times, both absurd and random. For example, shmoos, the mating protrusions of yeast, are so named because they look like a 1970s cartoon character. Meanwhile, dominant male elephant seals are called beachmasters and Somniosus microcephalus, the Latin name for the Greenland Shark, literally translates to ‘sleepy small brain.’ Biology is also responsible for some of science’s most excessively dull names like ‘levator palpebrae superioris alaeque nasi,’ which means lifter of both the upper lip and of the wing of the nose.

Most of the time when someone discovers something new, they are free to choose any name so long as it fits within the structure of naming in the field. Some fields, like chemistry, have an official organization (such as the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC) that has final say on the formal names of discoveries. Other fields, like ecology, use a more systematic system. The binomial nomenclature, created by the botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s, gives each organism a distinct two-part name consisting of a genus and a species; which, for the less creative scientist, can be the same as in the case of Gorilla gorilla. Typically, the organism’s formal name is written in Latin. Some scientists use this rule to humourous effect.

In 2010, the ecologist Dennis Desjardin and his team called their newly-discovered fungus Spongiforma squarepantsii, in homage to the beloved cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants. In 1977, Arnold Menke named a newfound species of wasp Aha ha. The Australian ecologist David McAlpine named a type of fly This and hung up a poster on his office door with an illustration of the fly that said “Look at This!”

Sometimes, the same phenomena are given different names, illustrating how subjective the naming process is. In the late 1990s, a University of Texas Southwestern research team studying obesity discovered a new neurotransmitter and named it orexin, after the Greek word for appetite. At the same time, a team at Harvard found the same neurotransmitter in the hypothalamus and named it hypocretin because it resembled secretin, another hormone. Since they found it at the same time, there is no clear consensus over who deserves naming rights, and it is still referred to as orexin/hypocretin.

While scientists often use Latin in biology, Greek serves as inspiration for some chemists. Sir William Ramsay, a Scottish chemist in the late 1800s, used Greek words to name the noble gases he discovered. Xenon comes from ξένος (‘stranger’), or krypton from κρυπτός (‘hidden’), and neon from νέος (‘new’).

Physicists have also been known to partake in whimsical naming with terms like ‘spaghettification,’ which refers to the phenomenon wherein matter elongates as it draws near to a black hole. Plenty of marketing went into naming physics discoveries in the late 20th century. The God Particle, the Big Bang, and even dark matter were all re-namings of previous discoveries, marketed to keep funding flowing and members of the field on their toes. Sometimes, the birth of creative scientific terms can be unintentional: A simple misspelling of ‘shift’ led to the creation of the ‘chemical shit’ scale in chemistry.

In every field, proposed names must first be peer reviewed by the scientific community before being published. Nonetheless, there is plenty of room for creativity, and scientists have even approved names that draw on popular culture like Han solo, a trilobite, and Dracorex hogwartsia, a dinosaur. Knowing that these amusing names exist makes studying Transcription Factor II A that much more bland. But, to all the bored biochemistry students staring out of the window of Schulich, just remember: When you discover a molecule, you can name it something fun.

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