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science, technology, and man’s feeble attempts to look itself in the mirror.

Science

Why No One Cares What Homology Is: The Importance of Naming Your Field Sexily

Did you ever stop to think about why in the hell Jurassic Park needed a mathematician to come be a consultant on their dinosaur island? It’s because Ian Malcolm wasn’t just a mathematician, he was a chaotician. He was a sexy man in a sexy field with a sexy god damn name. He wore a leather coat and sun glasses, and he had a lot more to say about divorces than nonlinear differential equations or bifurcations. This is because no one cared.

If you want people to give a clown’s ass about your field in the public eye, you need two things: lots of pretty pictures and a great name. Until the mid-seventies, you probably sported thick lenses and Pascal punch cards if you really cared at all about nonlinear dynamics or ergodic theory, but the advent of the phrase “Chaos Theory” got a lot more people to look up from Sports Illustrated and show a mild interest in having the work explained to them as an imprecise extended metaphor. The close ties to fractal geometry helped a lot, as it gave fringe amateur mathematicians something new to put under their black light. The long-term impact of its name is debatable, but I guarantee, if James Yorke hadn’t coined the term “chaos” in the seventies, the field would have a lot less money, interest, and dedicated researchers today.

And the real shit-kicker is many scientists have been dreadfully uninspired in naming new fields, theories, and discoveries. I have no idea how many people would care about black holes if they were still called “gravitationally completely collapsed stars.” Actually, John Wheeler’s term “black hole” was initially very controversial in France, where they thought it was too reminiscent of, well, you can imagine what French Physicists have on their mind.

I’m sure millions of people were greatly disappointed upon learning that game theory is more about payoff matrices and less about winning roulette or a dramatically fascinating struggle with mental illness.

If you are thinking about starting a new field of research, ask yourself whether you’re doing the marketing right. Is your name punchy and memorable? Does it mislead the casual scientist into fantastic misconceptions of its subject matter? Will it make for delightful book covers?

Here are some good examples,

…and some bad ones,

  • Stenography
  • Attachment Theory
  • Ontology

Actually that last one reminds me, as a rule, don’t end the name in -tology whatever you do. That’s just how you turn a field (Cosmology or Science or instance) into a shittier field (Cosmetology or Scientology). Or in the case of Scatology, it really was a shit field to begin with. If you are a scatologist, you should consider hitting up monster.com asap. Show a little self-respect.


Science is magic.

Welcome to Science Wand. We have a lot to say about the odd couple that is human natue and human ingenuity, and only so much interest in saying it. It’ll be a battle for the ages. Stay tuned.