ACRONYMS

         Scientific hypotheses are talking points. They are fluid things, sliding through conversations among people with scientific interests. The few most provocative hypotheses live and grow as they are repeated, becoming hallmarks on the path to understanding. The rest of them disappear into the continuum of new knowledge when the discussion moves off and leaves them behind.
         Hypotheses with the most staying-power unify scientific disciplines. At that point, they take on short-hand names that ease their entry into the debate. These names arise by chance – different ones come and go until the catchiest stick. Here are some examples.
         The “CLAW” hypothesis (the basis of the story “Calling down the rain,” found in the Essays section elsewhere on this website) proposed a biological link between atmospheric physics and the extremes of the climate. The theory describes a feed-back loop between sea and sky. That feed-back is organized by a series of molecules created by organisms in the water. The resulting modification of the weather is beneficial to those organisms, because it stabilizes the temperature of their south seas environment.
         The name CLAW is an acronym. It is derived from the sequential initials of Charlson, Lovelock, Andreae & Warren, the authors of the paper in the journal Nature, in which the theory was first presented. Based on the CLAW hypothesis, James Lovelock went on to formulate the “Gaia” hypothesis. That one furthers the proposition that the stability of the world derives from feed-backs between the biosphere and its physical surroundings.
         The cosmologists have long been leaders in the production of catchy acronyms. An example is the “NICE” Model. This theory resolved a whole passle of questions about the structure of the solar system. The hypothesis suggests that long ago the giant planet Jupiter threw the other giants Uranus and Neptune out twice as far away from the sun as they originally were. This deduction nicely resolves a raft of previously outstanding issues, including the origin of the rain of asteroids that long ago cratered the planets and their moons, as well as the creation of a distant reservoir of comets named the “Oort Cloud.”
         The NICE Model was conceived at an astrophysical convention, and has come to be named after the French city in which the meeting was held. So it is pronounced like “niece” by those privy to its origin, but like “nice” to those who came to the conversation later.
         One of the most famous of the astrophysist-coined acronyms is the “alpha-beta-gamma” hypothesis of the origin of matter. “αβγ” describes the creation of the elements during the theoretical explosion from which the universe was born. That primordial theory now goes by the name “the Big Bang.”
         George Gammow decided to assure the easy discussion of his theory of the creation of matter. So he built a list of authors for his paper whose initials spelled out its acronym, in Greek. He added the name of a third author – that of physicist Hans Bethe (pronounced “Beta”) – to the position in the author line between Ralph Alpher and himself. Bethe had not worked directly on the manuscript, but did not object to the privilege of being associated with the theory.
         Discussions of the αβγ (Alpher-Bethe-Gammow) hypothesis eventually arrived at a consensus that its description of the origins of the elements was inadequate – beyond the synthesis of hydrogen and helium. This set the stage for the formulation of the “B-squared F H” hypothesis, authored by Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle. That theory proposed that the synthesis of the larger elements happened not in the initial Big Bang, but in the hearts of the stars in the eons that followed. In 2007, a special convocation was held at Cal Tech to observe the 50th anniversary of the publication of B2FH. That paper linked nuclear physics and astronomy to established a new scientific discipline with its own journals and institutes – the science of nuclear astrophysics.
         There are lots of other easy-to-remember short-hand names for seminal scientific concepts. Each name has its own story. We should make a list. Send me your favorite examples, through the comments link below, and we will extend this CDSA (Collection of Descriptions of Scientific Acronyms).

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