Thursday, 22 July 2010

Career Choices

We scientists are generally thoughtful folk, not known for taking our pleasures in the form of wild drug-fuelled bacchanalian orgies, of the type indulged in by city bankers and pop-stars. We do regularly have Professor Brian Cox on the telly, but Sid Vicious he isn't. He is every Northern granny's pin-up boy, and I doubt whether he was ever the Mick Jagger type, even in his pop-star heyday.

This tendency for scientists to take their quiet pleasures where they may is epitomized by the 'Feedback' column in the weekly magazine 'New Scientist'. It generally confines itself to a type of slightly pedantic humour occasioned by the incapacity of many lesser journalists to distinguish their high-voltage arcs from their El Ninos. What they call 'Fruit-loopery', the crazy pseudo-scientific claims of so many modern advertizers, is another of 'Feedback's regular hobby-horses, and quite right too.

Recently they've been having great fun with acronyms, those words formed from the initial letters of other words, e.g. radar, derived from RAdio Detection And Ranging. They've been delving into the intricacies of 'nested acronyms', where the first letter of an acronym is itself used in another acronym, and you can then form acronyms in acronyms in acronyms, like those little gaily-painted wooden Russian matrushka dolls.

A SNARE, for example is a SNAp REceptor. Maybe you didn't realize that a SNAP, which contributes the SNA part of Snare, is the acronym for Soluble NSF-Attached Proteins. And as we all know, NSF is our old friend N-ethylmaleimide-Sensitive-Fusion protein.

The record so far appears to be a nest of 4 acronyms within acronyms in Appendix 7 of the Report of the 37th Meeting of the Coordination Group for International Satellites held in October 2009. You'd need to read New Scientist, July 10th, page 64 for further details of RARS and how it might affect us all. You may laugh, but the trouble with science is that it might easily affect us all.

Personally I like SECS. It stands for SEMI Equipment Communication Standard. 'And what is SEMI?' I hear you ask breathlessly. It's all to do with semiconductors. Those which have to communicate are labelled SECS I, SECS II etc. but those which do not need to communicate are simply called British, as in the long-running comedy No Sex Please, We're British.

My own research was never complicated enough to have an acronym, so I had to get my kicks in more devious ways. I worked at various times with Dr. Pye, Dr. Black, Dr. White, Dr. Peachey and Dr. Bottoms, all of whom had different areas of scientific expertise. I eventually managed to devise projects in which I was listed as an author with Peachey and Pye, but I never managed to get into juxtaposition with Peachey, Black, Bottoms et al.

Now I write blogs and books about Gods and Dogs.

I think I'd rather have been a pop-star.


  1. P.S. Now I think about it, writing blogs isn't such a great idea anyway, so that was my last.
    John B.

  2. What? No more blogs? Come on John B - you know you want to and besides, who else is going to make me cough cornflakes onto the screen of my mac?

    Ali x

  3. Speaking as one who was 'around' at the time, I think Brian Cox was very much in the Mick Jagger mould before he grew up and spent all his pop-star money on educating himself.
    There are many, many stupid acronyms in the aviation profession as well as in medicine. But more amusingly I met someone who's post code was SL1 5EX the other day. That's an interesting neighbourhood.