Fermented Apples and a Cheap Date

filthy_students_room

This is a gross room.

This week I was searching Washington hospital websites to look at job openings, and I ran across a job called “Gross Room Technician”. In the Pathology Department. I thought “Wow, that must call for a particular personality type.”

What the gross room really is, I found out, is where pathologists examine specimens by eye instead of with the microscope. Because looking at things without a microscope requires larger pieces, and because one of the meanings of “gross” is large, this is called gross examination. For most people even being in the Pathology Department probably would be pretty gross. (I attended an autopsy once, when I was a medical lab student. I didn’t call it gross—I called it philosophically unnerving.)

That job title reminded me of something I thought of writing about last fall, some of the strange language of scientists. We often think of scientists as wearing white coats and having weird hair and getting excited about stuff that makes other people think, “Are you really…?” And that’s all true. In addition, they sometimes do odd things with language.

Too often, and unfortunately, scientists will name something so badly that the name alone makes it harder to learn forever. On other happier occasions, some quirky young scientist will get an idea sitting in a bar late at night, and apparently the rule is, if you find it, you can call it whatever you damn well want.

Thus, for instance, there is a type of protein found in many animals (from flies to humans, given that we have so much in common), that leads to thick bristles over the eyes, like the eyebrows of Grouch Marx. When you think about it, the protein is probably named as much for those fake Groucho glasses as for the real person. It’s a real name, though, as you can see from this science-y sounding definition: “Groucho proteins: transcriptional corepressors for specific subsets of DNA-binding transcription factors in vertebrates and invertebrates.” Yeah, alright, that took the fun out of it.

Here are a few more examples of different types of things with interesting names:

Chemical names:

  • luciferase—a group of proteins involved in the process of giving off light, as with fireflies
  • bastardane—a chemical compound with an unusual structure (from “bastard child”)
  • draculin—a chemical compound found in the saliva of vampire bats

Living organisms:

  • Lepidocephalichthys zeppelini—a species of fish named after the band Led Zeppelin
  • Adonnadonna primadonna—a fossil algae named after a song from 1963

Genes:

There are many genes—a plethora, a beatitude, a bazillion—and scientists need to call them something. Most genes have horribly dull names, like CPX12, but here are some exceptions. These are all genes variations found in fruit flies.

  • cheap date gene—leads to flies that are especially sensitive to alcohol
  • Ken and Barbie gene—leads to both male and female flies with no external genitalia
  • Tinman gene—leads to flies that develop without a heart
  • hedgehog gene—leads to short hairy larvae, and a protein that comes from this gene has been named Sonic hedgehog after the video game

You see how much fun science can be? Especially at the bar afterward. I should have been a scientist and discovered stuff. Man, I bet I could think of some names that would make the thick bristles over your eyes stand straight up.

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2 Comments

Filed under Language

2 responses to “Fermented Apples and a Cheap Date

  1. Who, David, named the titmouse? Was that after a night of heavy drinking on Audobon’s part?

  2. Here is something from the Dictionary of Totally Made-Up Etymology. The name “titmouse” in Middle English was “tittemousse”, basically the same, but it goes back to Germanic adjective “titten” meaning “quick, spunky, cheerful”. The small bird, native to North America, was named by the Anglo-Saxons in anticipation of a bird with such qualities someday being discovered.

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