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

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 asap. Show a little self-respect.

3 Responses Subscribe to comments

  1. penny

    Why do we want the general public and crackpots to pay
    attention to us? It doesn’t seem to increase grant support or salaries and it is generally a pain in the neck.

    I used to able to read papers on singularites in general relativity in cafes–but now there are people pestering me with science fiction questions about wormholes. I tell them that I not “Samantha Carter” from Stargate. Or they pester me about Black Holes–expecting a science fiction type lecture–or a
    popular science talk. I just want my espresso, and some peace to study away from my office or house, sometimes.

    The same is true for any book with the word “nonlinear” in its title.

    Feb 07, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

  2. penny

    I am also annoyed when physicists give sexy names to already named mathematical objects. I make a point of never using the term “brane”–because submanifold is the established math term.

    I loathe hype–one reason that I became a mathematician.

    Math is hard, and it proceeds slowly–at the speed of honesty. We call that “Rigor”.

    I have NOT observed any increase in funding of pure mathematics due to hyped-up names. I have observed a lot of funded crap ( mostly by computer types) in “chaos” and “fractals”. I do nonlinear analysis and
    geometric measure theory–and thank the gods that the general public has yet to understand that the latter
    is related to “fractals”.

    Feb 07, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

  3. pazuzuzu

    This guy, who writes about statistics vs. machine learning, agrees:

    Feb 08, 2009 @ 10:40 am