So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
Two very different items - exoplanets and fruit flies - are the subject of no small (or large) naming controversy. Before you say, "What does it matter what they're called?" - which is what I initially said - read on.
Flies of Fruit1
Ah, scientific humor. Nothing tickles the funny bone of a geeky lab rat more than giving a model organism a hilarious and apropos name. Consider the following names for genetic mutations in Drosophila melanogaster, courtesy of Southern Fried Science following this NPR story:
Come on, these are awesome and creative and funny! There's even a mutation in which the mutant embryo that does not develop a heart named Tinman.
Stranded At Second: A fruit fly that dies, usually in the second larval stage of development.
Agoraphobic: A fruit fly with larvae that look normal but never crawl out of the egg shell.
Groucho Marx: A fruit fly that produces an excess of facial bristles.
Cheap Date: A fruit fly that expresses high sensitivity to alcohol.
Out Cold: A fruit fly that loses coordination when the temperature drops.
Kenny: A fruit fly without this gene dies in two days, named for the South Park character who dies in each episode.
Ken and Barbie: Fruit flies that fail to develop external genitalia.
I’m Not Dead Yet (INDY): These fruit flies live longer than usual. This is from the Monty Python movie The Holy Grail, where a guy pushing a wheelbarrow calls out, “Bring out your dead,” only to discover that one corpse is well enough to shout out, “I’m not
dead yet!” over and over.
The problem? When these names are transferred to human genes. Think about it - one of your parents gets sick and finds out it's due to a genetic mutation. They ask the doctor what the problem is and the doctor says, "Well, I'm sorry things don't look so good
because you have [the] I'm Not Dead Yet gene." Or what about being told that you have the "Shaven Baby" or "Killer of Prune" mutation? Funny? Yes, if you're a stranger reading about the story. Not funny? Yes, if you're the patient.
What to do? Well, the Human Genome Organization Gene Nomenclature Committee has been monitoring fruit fly names and has changed some names (ones that are considered inappropriate for human gene names), and major scientific journals have apparently agreed to be ruled by the panel's decisions.
I'm curious how they'll rename "faint sausage" or "fear of intimacy."
Names from outer space
What about objects that don't require a doctor to tell Grandma she's a cheap date? Why would we care what researchers name exoplanets?
First, a little background. Since 1995, according to Technology Review Feed's arXiv blog, astronomers have found more than 400 planets orbiting stars other than our sun. And yet not one of them has a formal name beyond their long cumbersome scientific designation, which means nothing to people outside of the field. For example: MOA-2008-BLG-310-L b.
Is it me, or does this look suspiciously like the Eye of Sauron?
The IAU says that they expect to find gazillions of exoplanets so it would be impractical to name them all. Sounds like a certain agency is just being a little lazy...arXiv calls it "curmudgeonly." But besides giving the exoplanets names that are less of a mouthful and perhaps more fun, why would we care? Well, arXiv says, some of these exoplanets may turn out to play significant roles in the history of astronomy, perhaps by helping us understand the nature of planets and the possibility that life may exist on some of them. Yes, it's impractical to name thousands of exoplanets and stars. But the important ones should have names, according to Wladimir Lyra's paper on the subject. (See the paper for a proposed list of exoplanets by the star they orbit.)
1 Yes, I know that the entire genus of Drosophila is commonly called "fruit fly" even though this is somewhat of a misnomer, especially given that there are over 1,500 members in the genus but D. melanogaster is the prime model organism. Also, there is some confusion because the related Tephritidae family are also called fruit flies.