What’s in a name? Ununpentium

This week, big news in the chemistry community is that scientists have created a new element- element 115. Because I know nothing about element 115 except that it is neither natural nor practical, to me, the most interesting part of the story is its name.

All elements can be identified by a number – the number of protons in their nucleus – which is why this element can be referred to by the number 115. However, the element also has an official name, dictated by international chemistry naming rules – ununpentium. The “unun” comes from the Latin “unum,” (1) and the “pent” is Greek for 5, so when you squish the roots together, you get 1-1-5. After I found this out, I had to find out why the name is a combination of roots from two different languages… Wikipedia to the rescue: it couldn’t be named “ununquintium,” which would represent all Latin roots because that name is too similar to “ununquadium,” which was element 114’s temporary name before it was renamed “flerovium.” Serious thought went into this decision.

Man, that's a lot of electrons. Image: commons.wikimedia.org
Man, that’s a lot of electrons.
Image: commons.wikimedia.org

And the naming story doesn’t end there, for “ununpentium” is only a temporary name. The first group to create the element (scientists led by Russian S.N. Dmitriev) have the privilege of naming it. They actually first created it in 2004, but the element is just making headlines now because it was just recreated, so maybe they have the name figured out by now. Imagine having 9 years to agonize over the name of an element that will be printed on every periodic table from here on out? How does the man sleep at night with such responsibility on his shoulders?

Human perception circa 1959

I recently saw this review of The Human Body: What it is and How it works, a book published in 1959 containing vivid illustrations of the body.

Two images in particular really struck me. The first is a representation of 4/5 of our senses, our modes of perceiving the world around us:



The second is a representation of olfaction:

cranial nerve


I’m not sure if I totally “get” these illustrations, or even if there is much to understand. Either way, they’re really visually appealing, even if devoid of much meaningful information…

My new brain bucket

When I was little, I rode my bike all the time. In the safety of my own, seemingly-large, U-shaped driveway, and in the quiet cul-de-sac by my house. My elementary school was on a long dead-end street with only two houses, and when I wanted to really live dangerously, I’d speed down its big hills (and then walk my bike up them). This was my prior experience with biking, but upon moving to a bike-friendly city in which I am carless, I got a new bike, strapped on my helmet, and with a mix of confidence and fear, took to the road. This haiku (from The Little Book of Neuroscience Haikus, my new favorite book) is in honor of my new wheels:

Helmet for my head

Protecting critical mass

Useful brain bucket.

(The book also notes that wearing a brain bucket can reduce the risk of head injury up to 85%, just FYI)

I think about thoughts

I’ve never been a huge poetry fan, because I often feel that there’s such a surplus of language to get a point across (and in many cases, I’m not even sure I understand the message). Haikus, however, have always impressed me by their ability to succinctly make a point while meeting their 5-7-5-syllable requirement. I recently found this book, The Little Book of Neuroscience Haikus by Eric Chudler, and had so much fun reading through it. Here’s one of my favorites:

Cerebral cortex
Surrounding outer layer
I think about thoughts.

Image: wikipedia
Image: wikipedia

In three short lines, Chudler tells us where the cerebral cortex is located and generally sums up its function- complex thought. I think the last line is a pretty cool description not only of the cerebral cortex, but also of cog sci in general.


In the past week, I’ve traveled across the country, down the coast, and moved into a new apartment. Suffice to say, I’ve come up with A LOT of questions. Here’s a small sampling:

  • Puns: Are they universal? Some research suggests so. Typically when something is universal, there’s a reason, an advantage that it confers. If puns are universal, why? I spent one day in Sonoma county, and felt like a pun magnet: they were on billboards (Whole Foods urged customers to “eat the food less traveled” [I’m now thinking this is more of a play on words than a pun, but close] and another business boasted about cattle “born and grazed” in Marin County). The wine industry was also ripe with puns (“Another grape day at Cline“; “Wine a bit… you’ll feel better” [outside a restaurant], and the “Grape Escape,” an ad for a store). I also found a few blogs centered on puns- one that plays with movie titles, and another with rappers and cereals.

  • Is your beverage of choice (coffee vs. tea) correlated with your introversion/extroversion style? This Thought Catalog post struck me as comical because of its accuracy, and the differences articulated between the two kinds of drinkers sounds very familiar to those between introverts and extroverts.

    I'm a tea person, all the way.  Image: wikipedia
    I’m a tea person, all the way.
    Image: wikipedia
  • How do undecided freshman choose a major after only 1-2 years? This article suggests that their professors have a huge impact. Is that surprising? Not really, to me. Good teachers make a subject interesting, and an interesting subject makes a major appealing. Even though grad students have more direction at the outset of their programs than undecided freshman, how much of a role do faculty play in determining a grad student’s ultimate path- their dissertation and beyond? My guess: A LOT.

In the spirit of an abundance of questions, I’m off to wirelessly connect my computer to a new printer…

Field work at the ball field

A few days ago, I went to watch my little sister umpire a softball game, and since the game wasn’t totally riveting (the average age was probably 9 years old), I did some field work without moving from my spot on the top bleacher.

Disclaimer: This post is totally heteronormative. In fact, it’s the epitome of heteronormative.

What I was paying most attention to was the male brains vs. the female brains around me. Ever since I read Louann Brizendine’s books (aptly titled The Female Brain and The Male Brain) a few years ago, I’ve been convinced that we’re not only physically different, but there are a lot of physiological differences in our brains that make males and females quite different creatures.

The first subjects I observed were two boys, probably about 8 years old. They were about a foot away from me, but had no idea I was even there, despite the fact that I’m a far from subtle observer. They had a bat and a ball, and were standing about 3 feet from each other. One would toss the ball, and the other would hit it back at his friend. I hypothesized that the object of the game was to actually hit the tosser, but it was hard to confirm this because very little actual conversation took place. There was a lot of laughing and many comments like “Got you!” and “Did not!” And that concluded their interaction.

Then I saw two girls, about the same age, sitting on a seat behind me. They didn’t seem to have the same urge to be constantly moving, as the males did. Instead, they chatted. “I don’t even feel like having ice cream today,” the first one told her friend. The other agreed, “I don’t think I’m going to order any.” Their conversation was collaborative, building off of what the other said, affirming the other’s comments by agreeing. Furthermore, they were planning- they must have known they were going out to ice cream later, and they were thinking about whether they would order any.

These observations seemed overwhelmingly in line with Brizendine’s arguments about the differences between the male and female brains. My final subjects were the parents sitting in front of me- a mom and a dad. The mom had packed a cooler (I suspected this just by looking at the organizational system in place inside the cooler, but later conversation confirmed my suspicion); the dad consumed the contents. The mom worried aloud about whether her daughter would have time to each her PB&J between innings; the dad nodded in reply and cheered for the player who had just made a great catch. The mom complimented another mom on her new purse; the dad ragged on another dad for drinking a Diet Coke.

Who ever knew such valuable field work could be done at a ball game?

I wonder whether this diagram was made by a male or female...? Image: anecdotes.typepad.com
I wonder whether this diagram was made by a male or female…?
Image: anecdotes.typepad.com



Today while I was driving, I noticed a sign advertising: “1ST QUARTER TAX’S DUE ON AUGUST 1 2013.” As usual, the unnecessary apostrophe (and the missing comma, but to a lesser degree) annoyed me, but then I rationalized it: it got the point across and I guess the same skill set isn’t really needed for doing taxes as advertising their deadlines.


After this, I started thinking about how much I love the apostrophe- it can be really handy and help us not only to be more concise (compare “my dad’s hat” to “the hat of my dad”) but also to write in a more casual tone (“don’t” vs. “do not”). We can even leave out letters without looking ignorant (as Dunkin’ Donuts proves… wouldn’t it be awkward if we went to Dunking Donuts?)


Because I was on a particularly boring road, I next thought about the comma, because it’s the same shape as the apostrophe (hence its new title, the “comm’apostrophe”). Instead of allowing us to be more concise, as the apostrophe does, the comma allows us to elaborate by creating lists or by adding dependent clauses, which can add a more formal element to a sentence (i.e., the sentence you just read).

Neither of these marks is totally crucial for understanding  a sentence, and we probably don’t notice their absence nearly as much as we’d notice a missing period or question mark. But they make communication richer and more fluid. For that reason (and at the risk of sounding like a prescriptive linguist), I really hope that their functionality is preserved as the English language continues to evolve.

Or maybe I should just shut up and do my tax’s.