Sunday, 9 December 2012

Tribbles and the Tin Man

Having headed a post 'The Name Game' yesterday, I was surprised to see this, on opening my daughter's
university mag this morning:

The article in the magazine turned out to be surprisingly interesting. It began by explaining that the planet Uranus was very nearly called George, because William Herschel, who discovered it in March 1781, (or at least he spotted it and thought it was a comet), wanted to curry favour with the king of the time, in the hope of future employment.

Beginning with this example, the author, Lucy Jolin, explains that the naming of scientific discoveries is very often a cultural, political and practical process, as much as a scientific one.  She goes on to point out that the so-called 'God particle':

"was originally known as the 'Goddamn particle', because of its elusive nature, but [was] cleverly truncated - not by a scientist but by the astute editor seeking a title for the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman's book".

Similarly the 'boson' part of 'Higgs-boson' is not, as I'd always imagined, spelt 'bosun', in some obscure reference to naval folk charting by the stars, but actually named after the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose and spelt 'boson'.

Most intriguingly, in my view, Jolin describes the process for naming newly discovered genes. One, which indicates uncontrollable cell division, is called 'Tribbles', which apparently means something to the Star Trek fraternity. Another, found in fruit fly and indicating that an organism has no heart is called 'the tinman gene', which I think is beautiful.

Nowadays, however, such interesting choices are unlikely to be made. There are officials in charge of such things, ensuring, rather boringly, but probably sensibly, that genes don't get called anything ridiculous or funny. One such official describes how they approach their task:

"We always imagine that at some point a clinician may need to discuss this gene with a patient",

she says. So far, so reasonable. However, she goes on to say this, which she obviously thinks will make sense to the average patient, which I doubt:

"For example, one gene symbol is PARN, which stands for poly (A)-specific rubonuclease. Because it chews up the poly (A) tail on mRNAtranscripts. That describes what it does in a nutshell."

Ah yes, of course. It probably does put things in a nutshell for the speaker, Dr Ruth Seal, but then she is a person who was "former literature curator for the FlyBase genetic database at Cambridge [and] is now genomenclature advisor to the Human Genome Organisation nomenclature committee at the European Bioinformatics Institute".

I wonder if she drinks at all. If I were her, I wouldn't fancy answering the perennial party question "What do you do?" after a glass or two.

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