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AKE All Kinds of Everything

Sue Bowler

Image Credit: S.Bowler

A project going by the name of H0LiCOW set me thinking about acronyms – and their pitfalls!

Incomprehensible acronyms are a feature of science, a sort of jargon within jargon. H0LiCOW, a recent project to determine the Hubble Constant in the local universe, made me think of this – and raised a hollow laugh. I can see that, with the increasing number and complexity of experiments and instruments, many researchers seek to demonstrate their individuality and even creativity through these names. Sometimes this works. And sometimes it really doesn't, leaving the despairing reader baffled, offended or wishing the writer would just stop trying so hard and call their precious experiment Fred.

ESA's Rosetta mission is something of a success story here. It was named after the Rosetta Stone, a tablet containing inscriptions in three languages, each saying pretty much the same thing. One of those scripts comprised ancent Egyptian hieroglyphs, whose meaning at the time was not understood. The other two were ancient Greek and a more recent Egyptian script; comparison between the three inscriptions provided the key to understanding the hieroglyphic language. So Rosetta was an appropriate name for a mission intended to find out about comets and link them to other sources of data about the early solar system. A competition to name the associated lander came up with Philae, the name of a temple from which an obelisk inscribed in Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs provided further illumination.

The ancient Egyptian theme spread through the mission. One of the lander instruments was called Ptolemy; Rosetta's camera system was OSIRIS. Areas of the surface of comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko were named after anceint Egyptian gods and goddesses. The place where Philae landed was named Agilkia, after the island where the Temple of Philae was rebuilt after the construction of the Aswan Dam. Echoing this history of translation, Philae itself bounced and eventually setted in the Ma'at region. 

Not everyone joined in; instruments such as ALICE and COSAC stuck with reasonably straightforward acronyms. As an editor, I have to hunt down and spell out these shorthands – and I often find myself baffled. Sometimes I am blindsided by finding a familiar acronym in an entirely different scientific field. A none-too-careful reader could wonder why cosmologists  appear to display an interest in the core-mantle boundary, and deep Earth seismologists spend so much time worrying about the cosmic microwave background, until enlightenment about the ambiguity of the acronym CMB strikes.

And the longer the acronym, the more confusing they are. I often turn to the list of acronyms collected by Glen Petitas at the Centre for Astrophysics at Harvard, to find out what both obscure and overly snappy astronomical acronyms actually refer to – with the added bonus of discovering occasional duplicate names. Petitpas's list is more usually referred to as DOOFAAS – Dumb Or Overly Forced Astronomical Acronyms Site – and you'll gather that it is not a place to find obvious, apt and appropriate acronyms (although APT is in there). No, this is the home of  SPECULOOS, FLAMINGOS and GADZOOKS! You'll have to look them up, I'm afraid. SPECULOOS and FLAMINGOS are guilty of selecting letters randomly from the full title of the experiment in order to make a jolly word – and not even the first letters of the words. GADZOOKS! has an entirely unnecessary exclamation mark and a convoluted name chosen only to make the acronym work. Happily, it has been superseded.

Some of the acronyms are unexpectedly flowery. Surely FIGARO must have involved singing and romance? Proably not, although it did involve at least one balloon. Future astronomy-opera buffs may also note that the opera The Marriage of Figaro has the subtitle "The Follies of a Day" which I would not want associated with a pet project. And while we're on the subject of pets, were EIDERS expected to be cooing, like eider ducks? I'd like to hope so. 

There are also some cautionary tales for researchers planning exciting new experiments with memorable acronyms. One potential difficulty with relevance to international projects comes from the rumoured name first selected for the Italian Human Genome Project: GENItalia. It's always best to think twice and ask if your convoluted but cherished acronym means something unfortunate in another language. Awareness of different definitions of humour is also useful. Those who proposed the Super Huge Interferometric Telescope should be aware that some people think their acronym smells a bit off; Apollo 16's Far Ultraviolet Camera was referred to as the UVC, for very good reason. Google can be your friend here. If a search on your planned acronym brings up unspeakable images or dodgy stories, it's probably best to think again.  

All in all, there's a strong case for short, simple acronyms (even if, as Petitpas points out, you have to have acronyms of acronyms in order to achieve that). Relevant is good, rude is bad and funny is difficult; in-jokes are fun but, by definition, exclude new people. So be ruthless in meetings, however brilliant that idea you came up with in the pub – and stick to something short and to the point. I'd accept H0LiCOW if the sources used made a dot-to-dot picture of a holy cow, complete with halo, on the sky, but otherwise, I stick by my liking for short friendly names. Although FRED is taken, it turns out. 



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