Nerdy, happy things: names in science

A friend once described the TV show The Big Bang Theory as “it’s so nerdy you feel kind of dirty for understanding the jokes”. I know where he’s coming from, but sometimes it’s these little nerdy things and insider jokes that show the real soul of scientist (sometimes weird and twisted, sometimes funny, sometimes touching and sentimental…). Particularly good examples are scientific names of substances, methods or species. And so, just to start my 2016 blogging year on a happy note, I’d like to showcase some of my favourites  🙂

The problem of naming things in science is not new. Take, for example, Albert Szent-Györgyi, whose discovery of vitamin C earned him a Nobel prize in 1937. Back in the 1920s, though, he discovered a sugar acid, but had so much trouble coming up with a good name he even considered “ignose” and”godnose” (-ose being the scientific indication that it was a sugar) as options. The editor of the journal handling his paper rejected both options and it was finally published under the much less entertaining name of hexuronic acid.

Ampulex dementor, female holotype. From Ohl et al, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0095068

Ampulex dementor, female holotype. From Ohl et al, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0095068

Luckily, science is much less restrictive when it comes to species names. One of my favourites from 2014 is Ampulex dementor, a species of wasp which was named after “the ‘soul sucking’ dementors from the popular Harry Potter books”, because of “the wasps’ behavior to selectively paralyze its cockroach prey”. I like the name not only because it weds taxonomy with literature, but also because the name was chosen through crowdsourcing, by letting museum visitors vote on the name.

Another good species name was widely reported in the media: the Brazilian frog Dendropsophus ozzyi. The frog makes sounds resembling that of a bat, which inspired the discoverers to name it after Ozzy Osbourne, because the rockstar reportedly bit the head off a live bat during a 1981 concert.

Sometimes the origins of the name simply get shrouded in the mists of the past, like the name of the moth Papaipema pterisii. Taxonomists long thought the moth was named after a fern from the moth’s habitat, but in reality the name was inspired by the discoverer’s pet cat! 

And then, sometimes the logic behind names is a lot more complicated. Take the gene Churc1. That’s an abbreviation for “Churchill-domain containing 1“, which in turn was based on the presumed structure of the gene product: it was supposed to be a Zn-finger protein with peculiar structure, resembling Sir Winston Churchill’s famous gesture (HT to @janosbinder for this one).

Churchill's gesture and the structure of Churc1. See the resemblance? Structure from PDBe, entry 2jox.

Churchill’s gesture and the structure of Churc1. See the resemblance? Structure from PDBe, entry 2jox.

And finally, this blog post wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t at least mention the story of Denis Duboule’s decade-long effort to coin and publish abbreviations in mouse genetics, which would allow him to put together the French slang sentence/insult: “f**k your mother in a leopard-skin G-string”.

Happy 2016!

 

 

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