The language of deep space

I love beautiful, sciencey, spacey things. Mainly because I’m an absolute nerd, born and bred. And because supernovae and nebulae are pretty to look at and nice to write (they have dipthongs, which I like). And because I’m easily impressed by anything that is truly unfathomable.

But also, just quietly, it’s because I love the oddball, highly-specialised vocabulary. Obviously, these words were created by a boffin (or boffins*), with a brilliantly nerdy sense of humour, and the knowledge that the only chance of said neologisms making it into general usage rests entirely on a healthy dose of absurdity.

  • Airy Disk: “the brightest spot formed by a star image as seen through a telescope”.
  • Cygnus Rift: Cygnus, as in swan. Also known by the even sillier name ‘The Northern Coalsack’.
  • Hoag’s Object: because calling it ‘Hoag’s Thing’ would have been too vague?
  • I Zwicky 18: a galactic “hot, young star”.
  • Oort Cloud: a spherical cloud of comets which may or may not exist somewhere between our Sol and Proxima Centauri.



And then we come to the acronyms of astronomy, which are all painfully forced:

  • FORS: FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph
  • HiRISE: High Resolution Imaging Science Equipment
  • ALEXIS: Array of Low Energy X-ray Imaging Sensors
  • ARTEMIS: Advanced Relay TEchnology MISsion
  • GLIMPSE: the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-plane Survey Extraordinaire (no, seriously)



And, of course, the implements that were named at the end of a long day, when all the boffins were exhausted from brainstorming silly names, and just wanted to go home and play dorky 1980s computer games. “I give up!” they said. “Let’s just go with the bleedingly obvious!”

  • Big Dumb Booster: a space travel launch booster whatsit
  • VLT:  the Very Large Telescope (not to be confused with VLOT: the Very Large Optical Telescope)
  • ELT: the Extremely Large Telescope, of which there are ten, including…



And a couple forced acronym/I’m bored hybrids, which are really quite smart:

  • OSCAR: Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio
  • SOFIA: Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy
  • SPOT: Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre (even cooler because it works in both languages)



It’s a whole new lexicographical universe out there. Quirky, obscure, generally unusable, but nonetheless open to intrepid exploration.


{ Hubblesite.org }

* And I quote Wikipedia, on the subject of Boffins:

The word [boffin] conjures up an image of men in thick spectacles and white lab coats, obsessively working with complicated apparatus. Portrayals of boffins emphasize both their eccentric genius and their naive ineptitude in social interaction. They are, in that respect, closer to the “absent-minded professor” stereotype than to the classic mad scientist.

Sadly, I can’t decide on a truly apt collective noun for said boffins. ‘Team‘ seems to be a common choice, but it’s not particularly expressive. I rather think “bevy of boffins” sounds appropriately insular/awkward.



PS. I love the Boston.com Big Picture at any time of the year, but their Hubble Advent Calendar is like all my nerdy Christmases come at once.