It’s 1758, the Wi-Fi is shocking and you’re a scientist who’s just made an incredible discovery. A new species, new organ, new kind of coat hanger, it doesn’t matter, it’s new to science and it’s all yours. So, what do you name it? After yourself? Too vain. After your dog? Interesting choice, but you can surely do better. This discovery is crying out to be named after something incredible, something cool like a Rockstar, a Hollywood actor or an animated sci-fi character; something that doesn’t exist in 1758…
The year was bittersweet for scientific naming systems. On one hand, Carl Linnaeus had just published the tenth addition of his magnum opus, Systema Naturae, which is widely considered as the formal starting point of zoological nomenclature. On the other, you couldn’t yet name a parrot after a Pokémon. While Linnaeus was known to name new species after both colleagues and rivals – the foul-smelling weed genus Siegesbeckia was famously termed after rival Johann Georg Siegesbeck – for the most part, Latin was the primary source of inspiration, not culture. Which isn’t too surprising, really. The 18th century wasn’t the hive of pop culture we know today, unless you liked naming scientific discoveries after guillotines or the latest Handel track.
But fast forward nearly 300 years and you’re spoilt for choice. From fantasy foes to superheroes, science fiction spaceships to zombies, the 2018 pop culture buffet offers unlimited inspiration for any sci-fi savvy scientist. Take Yoda1, for example. Back in 2015, a group of American scientists were looking for a chemical that could open the Piezo1 ion channel, a miniature gateway that lets material in and out of cells. After creating and testing millions of compounds, they finally found one that worked: a tiny chemical that could force open the ion channel, Yoda1. Noting its diminutive size and gifted ability to ‘use the force’, it would have been criminal to name it anything else.
Here is one of the many gifts of conducting science in the modern age; not only are we able to robotically synthesise millions of new chemical compounds in days, but we can name them after green wizards who struggle with syntax, too. The scholar and the geek have combined; science diction has become science fiction.
And sci-fi properties don’t come much bigger than Star Wars. A genre headliner since 1977, this operatic space saga has inspired more than just the odd ion channel agonist. Back in May 2005, just as Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith was hitting cinemas, a paper was published on an electron transfer triad compound, composed of two zinc naphthalocyanines and a fullerene molecule. What was this studious compound christened? The Star Wars Tie Fighter Ship, of course. And you don’t need to know your Bothans from your Banthas to understand why:
Type in a Star Wars glossary to Elsevier and you’ll soon see much more of George Lucas’s lexicon spread across the world of science. There’s the overt, like Jedi1, a protein that helps remove dead cell matter – in one speech from Episode 3, Yoda himself tells Anakin Skywalker that “death is a natural part of life,”. And then there’s the more oblique, like OB-1, a protein that signals fat production. Maybe JABA-1 was taken.
And moving beyond basic compounds, a whole host of living chemicals owe their namesake to a galaxy far, far away, too. There’s Agathidium vaderi, a black beetle named for its shiny, Darth Vadar-like head, Wockia chewbacca, a large, furry moth, and the Han solo trilobite, which was actually named as part of a dare by the discoverer’s friends.
But is there a bigger point to all of this nerdy nomenclature? By naming chemicals and creatures after fictional characters, are scientists achieving something more meaningful? Perhaps even that fabled, just-out-of-reach reward – whisper it – recognition?
Earlier this year, a British research team generated and named an analogue for the Yoda1 molecule. Designed as an antagonist, this compound inhibited Yoda1 and stopped it from forcing open the Piezo1 ion channel. Its name? Dooku1.
As portrayed by the late actor (and former Second World War spy) Christopher Lee, Count Dooku is the primary villain of the second (and also fifth…) Star Wars film, Attach of the Clones. At the climax of the film, he battles his former mentor, Yoda, in a spectacular lightsabre-heavy duel that if not already immortalised on film, is now enshrined in this infinitesimal fight between sub-cellular proteins - like a nanoscopic Comic-con.
“We named our molecule Dooku1 because it didn’t activate the protein, but competed with Yoda1,” explains Kevin Cuthbertson, PhD student and member of the Dooku1 research team at the University of Leeds. “My supervisor, who hasn't seen Star Wars, Googled who competes with Yoda and found their fight from Episode 2. So we're just keeping the Yoda1 joke alive, really.”
“It's just quite funny,” he adds. “It makes a change from naming molecules after lab book numbers, and it definitely makes it easier to communicate the work to people outside of the field.”
And it’s this last point which may be the true benefit of christening compounds after made-up space aliens: they’re memorable. Ask any psychologist worth their Sigmund and they’ll tell you the value of word association in memory retrieval. It’s why school children learn the order of the planets as a story (My Very Enthusiastic Mother Just Served Us Noodles) and how you’ll finally remember your work colleagues names if you link them to celebrities. We’re just better at holding on to information if we make it relatable. And sci-fi-inspired chemicals are no different. They’re fun to remember, fun to talk about, and just fun all together.
So fun, in fact, that they often grab the attention of those far outside the scientific field. Take BaZnGa, for example, the catchphrase of fictional physicist, Dr. Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. Up until last year, it was just a gif you might receive from a friend who had a poor sense of humour, but now it’s a real chemical compound made from the elements barium, zinc and gallium. Inspired by the show, its creators, Paul Canfield and his research team, a, synthesised the chemical from their lab at Iowa State University.
Speaking to Chemistry World last year, Canfield explained, “I respect Dr Cooper and all of his work, and take any pronouncement of his seriously! So when a pronouncement was made that a BaZnGa compound may exist, it was our obligation to check it as part of the scientific method. There was no known ternary compound with barium, zinc and gallium. Wouldn’t that just be smashing if we could find one, and maybe it would have interesting properties.”
While BaZnGa didn’t provide any remarkable new properties to science, it did give it something more precious: publicity. New outlets of every kind reported its story and showed readers across the world how science could have a sense of humour (or not, depending on your taste in sitcoms). Yes, it seems you can name a new hexane molecule LV-425 and no-one will care, but name it LV-426 – the name of the planet from Ridley Scott’s Alien – and you’ve got people’s attention. And it’s this kind of publicity that can help excite and inspire budding scientists to join the field. After all, it’s not like becoming a scientist is an easy path. After years of degrees, PhDs and lab experience, it would be nice to have job with room for a sense of humour.
Being a scientist is the only job where you get to officially name something in the universe. That’s a pretty important job, and you either do it well or you do not. There are those who do, like the American mycologists who named a sponge-like fungi Spongiforma squarepantsii, and those that do not, like the Chinese researchers who abbreviated their Copper Nano-Tubes to Cu – N – well, you get the idea. There is no second try. And when it comes to Star Wars and sci-fi-inspired chemicals, the results are always in the former camp. Yoda1? Inspired, it is. Dooku1? Twice the chide, double the haul. Pikachurin, a dystroglycan ligand? Great Pika! And yes, when you get down to it, these geeky compounds are just for fun. But fun chemistry is fun to read about, and those who read about it one day might just become geeky scientists, themselves.