Fun science argot for the summer

As a science writer and editor, I see a lot of terms. Terms you don’t see elsewhere. Usually they just make me furrow my brow, but sometimes they make me laugh out loud. For your summer enjoyment, here are some of my favourites.

You know those animals all over conservation websites? Pandas, condors, and lions and tigers and bears oh my. Biologists call these charismatic megafauna. The first time I heard this, I nearly fell out my chair laughing. Of course, using charismatic megafauna to promote animal welfare is controversial, as the cuteness of an animal may trump its ecological value and lead to poor conservation decisions. Who wants to save leeches? They fulfil an important role, but charismatic they ain’t.

Recent reading on transportation accidents revealed a vocabulary most of us would never understand. For example, if an airplane leaves the runway in an unplanned kind of way, this is called an excursion. It’s just taking a little trip. Also, if an airplane hits the ground in a similar unanticipated situation, this is called a collision with terrain. Rather than another word the rest of us might use.

I work on a journal about seabirds, and that’s a treasure trove of argot. Today I’ll just mention an article in which the authors needed to categorize birds by how they were flying, so they called them gliders, glide-flappers, flap-gliders, and flappers. It was just a colourful way of capturing how much flapping and gliding they were doing, but I couldn’t keep a straight face.

Remember Superstorm Sandy? That was technically a mesoscale convective complex. If that phrase wasn’t in context, I wouldn’t even know what discipline it was in — geology? psychiatry?

Some of the most popular articles published in the Canadian Journal of Physics were on the motion of rapidly rotating sliding cylinders. Which is funny enough on its own, and gets even better when you realize the authors are talking about curling rocks.

Small fly species discovered in 1993 were named Heerz tooya and Heerz lukenatcha. You can’t make this stuff up.

Over in chemistry, I laugh every time the molecule Buckminsterfullerene is mentioned. This molecule was discovered in 1985, when futurist Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome — to which the molecule bears a striking resemblance — were still in vogue.

Those are just a few. If you have others, please write in and I’ll post the best ones.

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