Putting a name to it

Just because something’s got a name doesn’t mean anyone knows what it really is.

If you cannot explain a phenomenon, you can give it an invented name.
It won’t make you any the wiser, but it might bring you popular fame.
A name’s just a shorthand; it’s handy if other folk know what you mean.
(If they don’t, perhaps they’ll pretend to, so they can be part of your scene.)

The ATOM, the ÆTHER1, PHLOGISTON2 are well-known examples from history,
And GRAVITY, used by Sir Isaac for a force whose cause was a mystery.
(Phlogiston’s real nature’s now known, but the others remain unexplained –
Many theories have now been proposed, from the serious to the hare-brained).

Other mysteries acquired their own monikers over the span of the years:
MASS, INERTIA and IMPETUS3; EPICYCLES4 and CELESTIAL SPHERES5;
A CALORIC6 fluid, planet VULCAN7; VIS VIVA8; and CANALS9 on Mars;
HUMOURS10 and TERRA AUSTRALIS11; BIG BANG as the source of all stars.

These days we have new ones to fathom: they both have the moniker ‘dark’.
(They’re ‘dark’ in the sense of ‘mysterious’, but what they imply is quite stark:
It seems that we’ve only discovered one twentieth of all basic stuff –
A conclusion for science that’s shocking, surprising and puzzling and tough.)

DARK ENERGY’s effect is like gravity, but it acts in reverse, so they say.
It pushes, not pulls, and accelerates whole galaxies, light-years away.
DARK MATTER, it seems, does the opposite: it’s assumed to be holding in place
All fast-spinning galaxies, preventing them flying apart into space.

Some of these ideas have proved fruitful, and so have been further refined;
But others, less helpful, have been to the dustbin of history consigned.
In the end, though, they’re models in brain-space: to reality they have no claim.
So try to explain all phenomena; but remember – a name’s just a name.

  1. A space-filling medium deemed necessary for the propagation of light.
  2. A substance thought to be contained in all combustible bodies, but is now known to be the oxygen contained in the air. (See also Phlogiston)
  3. Something said to be imparted to an object when it was set in motion; we now know it as momentum.
  4. The imaginary gearing whose motions determined the paths around the Earth of the Moon, Sun and planets.
  5. A set of transparent, rotating Earth-centred spheres in which the known heavenly bodies were thought to be embedded. Also known as ‘crystal spheres’.
  6. A fluid said to be responsible for the phenomena of heat: it flowed from caloric-dense (hot) regions to caloric-poor (cooler) ones.
  7. A small planet thought to orbit the Sun inside the orbit of Mercury.
  8. The name given to the ‘living force’ believed to reside in objects in motion. It’s the quantity we now know as kinetic energy.
  9. The telescopes available to early astronomers seemed to show a pattern of straight lines on the planet Mars, prompting Giovanni Schiaparelli to describe them as ‘canali’ (channels), but the term was mis-translated into English as ‘canals’. Later, American astronomer Percival Lowell promoted the idea that they must have been built by intelligent Martian life.
  10. Four bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) which, it was thought, needed to be balanced for a healthy life.
  11. A continent predicted to exist in the southern hemisphere in order to ‘balance’ the distribution of land on the planet.

Image: BBC (sciencefocus.com)

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