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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

ignose, godnose, and Alpha, Beta and Gamma

Scientists can have a sense of humor.

"Ignose" and "godnose" are words coined to express ignorance, which, of course, begins with the letters i and g. Sugars are commonly named with the -ose suffix, as in glucose, fructose, sucrose, galactose, and many, many others.

Back in the 1920s, Albert Szent-Györgyi, later a recipient of the Nobel Prize, was able to isolate a substance from citrus fruits, cabbages, and adrenal glands. When he sent his results in to an appropriate scientific journal, the editor required Szent-Györgyi to name the substance. Szent-Györgyi first tried to name it "ignose," indicating that he did not know the precise structure of the substance, but the editor rejected that. So Szent-Györgyi tried "godnose," meaning, of course, that only God knows. That, too, was rejected. The substance was finally named hexuronic acid. It is now known as Ascorbic Acid, or Vitamin C.

In 1948, Ralph Alpher, then a physics graduate student, proposed a theory of how the nuclei of Hydrogen atoms (protons) could have joined together early in the history of the universe, and, when that happened, would have produced heavier atomic nuclei -- Helium and more heavy nuclei -- in the proportions in which they actually exist, as shown by spectrographic studies of stars. Alpher's advisor, George Gamow, approved Alpher's paper, and, as was customary, Gamow's name was added as a second author. (No doubt Gamow had actually contributed to the work.) Gamow decided, noting that Alpher and Gamow were already involved, decided, without consulting Hans Bethe, to add Bethe's name as another author, which was very unusual, generally only persons who have contributed to research are listed as authors. The resulting paper was known, and still is, as the Alpha, Beta, Gamma paper. (Bethe's name is pronounced very much like the Greek letter Beta. Alpher's and Gamow's names are not quite that close to those of Alpha and Gamma, but close enough that Gamow's joke made humorous sense. Physicists use the names of Greek letters for many things, for example gamma radiation.)

Hans Bethe later won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Actually, after the publication of the Alpha, Beta, Gamma paper, he did some important work on nucleosynthesis, although he hadn't done so previously. Alpher went on to have a solid career in science. Gamow was already well known as a scientist, and also as the author of the Mr. Tompkins series of popular science books for a general audience, and of the Biography of Physics, which I used as an important source in my own college teaching work. I recall that the Biography included several humorous anecdotes about important physicists. Gamow also contributed, by way of a suggestion in an article in Scientific American, to the eventual understanding of how DNA is able to carry the information necessary for the genetic code.

Thanks for reading. Scientists, some of them, anyway, have a real sense of humor.

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