The Economist December 1998
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY


Today we have naming of parts



When it comes to giving things names, scientists have a habit of throwing logic and consistency out of the window



THIS being December, the sun is in Sagittarius. So, as it happens, is another celestial body, asteroid 2901. This is a rock that should be close to the heart of every reader of The Economist. For, just as nature abhors a vacuum, so science abhors a missed opportunity to give a name to something—and the name of asteroid 2901, proposed by a former science editor of this newspaper, is Bagehot.

That a space rock is called after a Victorian journalist shows only that, no matter how meticulous and logical they are in their methods for making discoveries, scientists can be surprisingly whimsical when it comes to naming them. And not just whimsical. In fields from astronomy to zoology, names have as much to do with scoring political points, maintaining arcane traditions, settling scores, and making bad jokes as they do with labelling things in an unambiguous manner, which is supposedly their purpose.

Chemists, for example, argue bitterly about the names of new elements. These days, additions to the periodic table are created only fleetingly (and rarely) in particle accelerators, rather than being discovered naturally. Because that means only a handful of new elements is available, the right to name them is guarded jealously. That is why, in 1969, a nasty dispute broke out over element 104. Rival Soviet and American teams both claimed to have found first. The Soviets proposed the name kurchatovium, after the head of their atomic-bomb project. The Americans preferred rutherfordium, in honour of the New Zealander who first split the atom.

As more elements were discovered, and a German laboratory also entered the field, disputes over who had found what first increased. At last, in 1994, the nomenclature committee of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) held an inquiry into the priority of each discovery, and proposed a definitive list of names. However, the American Chemical Society (ACS), guardian of chemical nomenclature in the United States, immediately objected, because several of the names differed from its own recommendations.

In particular, IUPAC had proposed an alternative name for element 106—called seaborgium by the ACS—on the grounds that Glenn Seaborg, the Nobel-prize-winning American scientist after whom it had been named, was still alive. Death, said IUPAC, should be a prerequisite for scientists to have elements named after them. The ACS also objected to the compromise by which element 104 had been named dubnium—not the name the Russians had originally proposed, but a reference to the Russian laboratory in Dubna where the element had been created.

Following a year-long cooling-off period, and more consulation, a new compromise was devised. It was only in 1997 that the official names for elements 101 to 109 were finally agreed upon. The rules against the naming of an element after a living person were bent, and element 106 is today still known as seaborgium—an honour that Dr Seaborg himself claims to value even more than his Nobel prize. The Americans also prevailed over element 104, rutherfordium, in return for which element 105 was named dubnium instead. Expect more wrangling before elements 110, 111 and 112 receive universally agreeable monikers.

They say it’s written in the stars

Astronomers frequently take a more light-hearted approach than chemists, as the example of Bagehot shows. That is because new astronomical objects are being discovered all the time—so there is no shortage of things to name. But what it lacks in controversy, astronomical nomenclature manages to make up for in complexity.

Asteroids (or “minor planets”, as they are officially known), are named only when they have been observed enough times for an accurate orbit to be calculated. They are then given a catalogue number (Bagehot’s shows that it was the 2,901st asteroid to be identified formally). After that, the discoverer is allowed to propose a name.

Not any old name, mind you. According to the rules of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), political and military names may not be used until a century after the event or the death of the person in question. Nor may names be obscene, in bad taste, too similar to any existing name, or more than 16 letters long. It is also considered bad form for discoverers to name asteroids after themselves or their pets. Taking these rules into account, the relevant committee of the IAU (of which there are several) decides on the name.

In Bagehot’s case, yet another rule was invoked. Its discoverer had found so many asteroids that he had forgotten to propose names for them all. After ten years, such anonymous asteroids become fair game for other namers. So Bagehot it was. But journalists’ names are still unusual. In the early days of asteroid-naming, characters from western classical history were preferred—goddesses, warriors from the Trojan war and so on. Now, it is popular to call space rocks after rock stars: Lennon (4147), McCartney (4148) and Zappafrank (3834) got their names this way.

For the moons and surface features of non-minor planets, though, the traditional themes are more rigorously enforced. This year, for example, the names Caliban and Sycorax were proposed for the 16th and 17th moons of Uranus. The IAU has yet to approve these suggestions formally, but it is likely to accept them because they are in keeping with the convention of naming the moons of Uranus after Shakespearean characters. Even here, however, there are exceptions. Belinda and Umbriel, two of Uranus’s larger moons, take their names from a poem by Alexander Pope.

Often, names have to be appropriate to the body in question. Large craters on Mars are called after scientists and writers associated with the planet (though small ones are named after “villages of the world with populations of less than 100,000, according to the United Nations worldbook”). On Venus, large craters carry the names of famous women. And features on Pluto, when they are eventually mapped, will be called after underworld deities.

As technology advances and astronomers observe more things, the process risks getting out of hand. Names are now being applied to features on asteroids. Mathilde (253), was photographed by a spacecraft called NEAR (the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous probe) last year. Since it resembles a huge lump of coal, the craters on its surface have been named after coalfields. And in January, NEAR will start sending back pictures from another asteroid, Eros (433)—at which point, according to the IAU specifications, a whole load of “mythological names of an erotic nature” will be needed.

If the problems in chemistry are political, those in astronomy tend to be historical. Pluto, for example, is historically considered a planet, even though many astronomers argue that it is really just a large asteroid. This is an example of yet another source of inconsistency in nomenclature: despite scientists’ best efforts to fit things into well-defined categories, there are always exceptions and special cases.

That which we call a rose . . .

The field in which this causes the biggest headaches is the one with the greatest demand for new names: biology. Well over a million living species (not to mention fossil ones) have been identified, and millions more remain unknown. There are so many species that there is no possibility of each one’s name being approved by an international body. Instead, workers in individual fields of biology have long applied their own names, subject only to general guidelines—no obscenities, no naming things after yourself, that sort of thing. Once a name has appeared in print, it becomes official. Only in the event of a dispute is an international body brought in to make a ruling. In biology too, the desire to maintain historical convention often conflicts with efforts to name things according to strictly defined categories. The traditional “binominal” scheme, which was devised by Carl von Linné (Linnaeus), a Swedish naturalist, in the 1750s, gives each species a two-word name. The first word defines the genus and the second uniquely identifies a particular species within that genus. By convention, both words are usually latinised, and their pseudo-latin endings are made to agree according to the grammatical rules of gender.

This creates plenty of scope for tomfoolery. There is, for example, a kind of snail called Ba humbugi. There is also a spider called Dracula bramstokeri, and two beetles called Agra phobia and Agra vation. (Oddly, in addition to his asteroid, Frank Zappa is also commemorated by Zappa, a genus of guppy.)

The binominal system can cause problems when a species is reclassified from one genus to another—and since these are essentially arbitrary groupings, such moves are not uncommon. If the new genus has a feminine-sounding name and the old genus sounded masculine, the name of the species may have to be changed to agree with the ending of the new genus.

This can make an individual species hard to track through the literature, because neither of its two names necessarily stays the same. If there is already a species with the same name in the new genus, further problems ensue. And on top of that, every now and then somebody finds an old book or bone that upsets the established historical priority of a particular name. The much-loved dinosaur Brontosaurus became Apatosaurus this way.

Various schemes have been canvassed to try to clean up the mess and make life easier for those trying to merge botanical and zoological databases. A scheme akin to the Dewey decimal numbering system that is used in libraries is favoured by some. Another initiative, called BioCode, attempts to rationalise the different naming rules used in zoology, botany, bacteriology, virology and horticulture. But it has failed to get off the ground.

The truth is that the Linnaean system, even if imperfect, does at least have the virtue of producing names that are fairly simple to remember. Similarly, asteroid, moon and crater names trip more comfortably off the tongue than arcane catalogue numbers. And chemical formulae are easier to write with element names than numbers.

In other words, the chaos of naming, and the repeated rejection of more logical approaches, is a reflection of the fact that scientists are scientists second, and Homo sapiens first. To err is human. But so is the tendency to want to find out about things—and then to name them.