Monday, 8 October 2012


I was fascinated to see that the latest Google doodle was in honour of the 127th birthday of Niels Bohr, the Danish scientist.  Bohr produced the now famous atomic model, showing how electrons orbit the nucleus of an atom.  This is a pretty obscure anniversary, isn’t it.  Danish scientist!  127th anniversary?!  Still, it did start me thinking.  Why do we find names so important?

I fret, every time I go to play bridge in Haslemere, in case that bloke with the checked shirt who always bids no trumps is there.  Because I’ve forgotten his name and am too embarrassed to ask him again what it is.  But what does it really matter?  It’s just that he always says, ‘hello, Neil.’  And I have to say, ‘oh, hello, you.’  But that ought to be enough really didn’t it.  We say hello and you know who he is (the one with the checked shirt).

I have followed with interest discoveries and developments in the atomic world (since Niels Bohr's discovery).  Frankly, I find it very hard to believe that I or for example this desk I’m working on are made of loads of atoms joined together somehow, each one made up of electrons orbiting round and round.  Well, I’m a bit malleable, so I suppose it could be possible in me, but the desk?!!

Once upon a time the atom was defined as something so small it couldn’t be chopped up.  I was happy with that.  I could see my desk being made of lots of little atoms.  Yet every year it seems someone invents another tiny bit of the tiny bits we already know.  I mean, you can’t even see an atom until it’s enlarged millions of times, as it’s only about one Angstrom in diameter (and I’m not even sure I can fully grasp what an Angstrom is).  But the nucleus of the atom, since Bohr, is apparently made up of protons and neutrons and now we are told that both consist of up quarks and down quarks and gluons, all moving about.  Ugh.  And more recently, lunacy on lunacy, we have spent £3.5b on the Large Hadron thingy, yes, £3.5 billion!  You could buy several apartments in The Shard for that.  And for what?  So that we can split these microscopic specks of matter (assuming they really exist at all) into smaller pieces.

Well, it is a branch of science that makes you wonder what beneficial outcomes there will actually be.  Let’s face it, what exactly has the Higg's Bosun done for us?  I’d rather have a flat in central London anyway.  But more importantly – why do we have to give names to these little bits of whatever they’re made of?  It’s like gathering up a handful of dust from under the sofa, or Jammy Dodger crumbs from inside the bed, and sitting down and recording names for them all.  What on earth would you want to do that for?

And talking of earth, do you remember, when you were young, when you inserted a stick of dynamite into a breeze block and dropped it into a bath tub of Golden Syrup, how the explosion caused tiny pieces of concrete to spray out in a circle in all directions?  You never tried that?  You didn’t have an enquiring mind like mine then?  Well, all right, in my case, it was a Mighty Atom firework in a brick in a tub of water, but the effect would be the same.  Tiny pieces of rock are sent spinning off in all directions, making their way ever outwards, until they reach the sides of the container. 

But the point is - do you recognise the phenomenon?   Yes, it's the universe after the Big Bang.  Even if you didn’t try this at home, you can imagine it, can’t you.  

There has been a debate on and off for many years now about whether the world was created or whether we evolved from synthesis caused by a bolt of lightning.  I have never understood why it has to be one or the other to be honest.  I have always had this picture in my head (as you will from now on no doubt) of God throwing a breeze block filled with dynamite into a tub of syrup (probably several tubs of different liquids floating in a vat of water) and kneeling there with his kids, watching how things evolve.

But anyway, whether it’s dynamite or a thunderbolt He throws, looking at this Big Bang in your mind’s eye, when you see all those pieces flying off, amid innumerable bubbles of gas and patches of dust, would your first thought be, ‘Ooh, I must try to name them’?  Would you really want to bother to identify all the pieces of rock and assign each one of them a label?  Or the bubbles?  Or the dust?  And what about plotting the movement of the pieces and predicting their position in the next second or two?  Of course you wouldn't. 

So what is it with names?  Or what is it with humans that we have to invent names and assign them to everything?  Why do we all spend so much time naming specks of rock in space and even black holes where there used to be stars but currently isn’t anything at all?  If I said at a dinner party, ‘I’ve just brushed a crumb of toasted Asino off my lapel; I’ve decided to call it Georgio’, the other guests would look at me very oddly and think I’d moved even closer to the mad end of the sanity spectrum, wouldn’t they.  So why do we not find it strange, when a new star is discovered, that scientists name it S0-102.  It’s just a tiny piece of concrete swirling round a vortex that someone created with dynamite.  It’s 26,000 light years away!  Who cares what it’s called?  And we've all managed perfectly well for the last 3.5b years without giving it a name.

Anyway, the latest piece of scientific news is that Voyager 1 has passed through a cluster of bubbles at the border of the Solar System (called the heliopause, should you want a name).  Now, if I’m right, this cluster of bubbles is actually on the side of a bathtub.  So soon we should be experiencing a rushing and swirling, as all the syrup pours out of the tub through the hole made by Voyager 1 (into a vat of water filled with the 12 other tubs of liquid).  I shall name this phenomenon the ‘Hook Effect’.  And it will last until someone in the divine family sticks a strip of duct tape over the hole.  

Or, hang on, the Mayans predicted that the world would end on the 21 December.  Maybe the hole made by Voyager 1 can’t be plugged and we have just fulfilled this prophesy by irreparably damaging the side of the tub and causing the emptying of space?  The Mayans named this the final day of the 13th baktun ('back' = furthest point or side; 'tun' = barrel or tub).  Everyone else now seems to call it the Apocolypse.  Why do we need a name for it?  No one’s going to use it again are they – hey, do you remember when that hole was blasted through the 13th baktun, which we called the Apocolypse?  No, I’m dead.


  1. Don't worry - you are nice and safe in England, so what could possibly go wrong. Now I am sitting in a place near a town called Solothurn, North in Switzerland and by train two hours away from Geneva (Switzerland tiny country). So in Geneva they have built a tunnel around the town so many meters deep down. And what are they doing in the tunnel? Sending atoms on a journey in two different directions. Luckily there were a few stops with the experiment at the beginning, but now it is going full strength and all these clever scientists are so please one two atoms meet in the tunnel. Nothing like a sex orgy as you might imagine, so a sort of atom splitting device. Great, wonderful. There have been worries that a black hole could be the result of this game. Who cares, such a small country like Switerland. Probably wouldn't even be noticed.Of course the danger is that Geneva could sink into a hole, being surrounded by this tunnel. Am thinking about moving to Zürich, it is further East and at least the banks are there (and the gnomes of course).

    1. I wouldn't worry about it too much Pat. Those who have been postulating the creation of a 'black holes' have been reading too many sci-fi novels. The power generated by the LHC would have to be many magnitudes higher for it to become even a remote possibility.

    2. How wonderful that you are worrying about living in either Geneva or Zurich! But I think Mitch is right, it's unikely to create a blackhole. Whereas those banks . . .

  2. Let's scrap names altogether. No personal names, no street names, no town or city names. Let's see how much more entertaining society would become. I'm no longer Mitch. Just call me 'Human 6 billion and twenty seven'. What fun!!

    1. So now I have to try to remember to call you by your new designation. This isn't working at all! I shall continue to send messages to you and not feel the need to mention your name at all, Mitch.

  3. I know Mitch through his "nickname" that I sort of invented, due to his expert command of macro photograhy on a few other sites, so call him Macro Mitch. I am known as the Cat Loving Swiss Cockney on a Literature Site that I belong to. And I actually live in Feldbrunnen, near to Solothurn, 2 hours from Geneva and would not move to Geneva at all. I lived in Zürich for two years. When I met my Swiss husband, I thought yes, they all have gold bars under their bed, but unfortunately there are exceptions to every rule. My husband has an uncle that once worked for the CERN , the company that are playing with atoms. Living in a country next to France that have lined the Swiss border with a few nuclear power plants, you get used to living next to scientific "progress"

  4. What's in a name? Indeed. Mitch chooses H6b27, Pat chooses CLSC and Neil you choose.... Neil. Well to clear things up you can just refer to me as him... or thingumy.

  5. It's interesting, isn't it. Mitch opts not to have the name Mitch any more. But he still wants to be called H6b27. When you meet someone new, you each say, 'hello. My name is Neil, or H6b27, or whatever.' But there is actually no obligation to remember that. But of course we have to have names. But I am puzzled by the millions of people engaged in naming everything else they come into contact with. When the new species of butterfly was discovered in Mexico last year, why did it have to heve an interim name while hundreds of experts studied it and then named it finally? I've never met a butterfly that introduced itself; couldn't it just be 'a pretty butterfly in Mexico'?

  6. I have a heck of a job remembering names. Someone can introduce themselves and I've forgotten their name immediately [unless she's a beautiful woman].

    I noticed in hospital that most nurses [until they'd got your name] would call you 'mate' or 'duck' ... problem sorted.

    My daughter tends to call everyone 'sweetheart' if she doesn't know their names.

    I'd like to make a plea that the names of antibiotics and medicines be made much easier to remember too. Even if I remember what they're called I invariably mispronounce them.