• The yet-to-be-named Royal Research Ship that may - or may not - be named the RRS Boaty McBoatface. (Twitter)Source: Twitter
A glimpse at the history of funny scientific names shows that Boaty McBoatface would actually fit right in.
Chloe Warren

23 Mar 2016 - 1:49 PM  UPDATED 23 Mar 2016 - 5:12 PM

When scientists at the UK's National Environmental Research Council launched an internet poll to assist with the naming of their new AU$380 million research vessel, they were looking for "an inspirational name that exemplifies the work it will do."

Instead, the internet gave them: RSS Boaty McBoatface.

Boaty McBoatface most popular choice to name $380 million ship
It is a cautionary tale of well meaning, engagement-seeking bureaucracy and a cheeky public.

While it might be funny to imagine a group of disheartened scientists burying their heads in their hands, there’s a chance researchers could be pretty pleased with the results of the internet poll.

We base this assumption entirely on the history of scientists naming things – as it turns out, they've actually got a pretty great (and nerdy) sense of humour.

Superhero genes

Geneticists in particular have many an opportunity to get creative with scientific nomenclature.

Many genes get their name from the phenotype (i.e. physical characteristics) which arise when the gene is mutated. When researchers discovered a gene which caused the common fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) to grow an arrangement of spines along its axis, they dubbed it sonic hedgehog.

Similarly, when they identified a gene responsible for sexual organ development such that its mutation causes the genitals to remain inside the body, it was named ken and barbie. Officially.

As for the tiny plant called mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), when botanists mutated the SUPERMAN, they got a seedling with an extra stamen – the male reproductive organ in flowers – making it, well, super macho. They also identified a KRYPTONITE gene which (you guessed it) blocks the activity of SUPERMAN.

Snot on the ceiling

Microbiologists have also had some fun with their studies. ’Extremophiles’ are microorganisms which can withstand extreme conditions. One of the most famous is Deinococcus radiodurans, best known for its ability to survive in toxic waste.

It’s nickname? Conan the Bacterium.

Another great example of extremophillic bacteria is Acidithiobacillus thiooxidans, which oxidises sulphur for its primary energy source – its waste products are not dissimilar to that of battery acid.

It grows in colonies which hang like stalactites from cave ceilings. Except – because of their mucus-like consistency, these structures are actually commonly known as ‘snottites’ and ‘snoticles’.

There’s a hole in my bucky

But it’s not just biologists who get naming rights. When a group of physicists discovered a spherical C60 molecule which spontaneously assembles under specific conditions, they named it buckminsterfullerene, after the architect who popularised the geodesic dome in the 1950s.

Richard Buckminster Fuller’s molecular mouthful of a namesake was soon shortened to bucky-ball. The unusual carbon arrangement quickly spawned a ‘fullerene zoo’ of structural variations, consisting of bucky-tubes, bucky-babies, bucky onions, bunny-balls and There Is a Hole in My Bucky.

Finally, if Australians needed any more reason to fear the irrationality of the imperial measurement system, here it is.

A ‘slug’ is a unit of mass which accelerates by 1 foot per second when the force of 1 pound is exerted on it. That’s 14.593903 kg in standard gravity. A ‘blob’ on the other hand, is a unit of mass which accelerates by 1 inch per second when the force of 1 pound is exerted on it.

Logically therefore, one blob is equivalent to twelve slugs. And that is an actual sentence.

Update: An earlier version of this story had the blobs and the slugs mixed up. These are truly difficult measurements and the editor is sorry. The current version is correct (1 blob = 12 slugs).

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