Thursday, September 22, 2011

Puns and wordplay in Science

In 1975, E. M. Southern developed an elegant method to detect specific DNA after gel electrophoresis (J. Mol. Biol. 98, 503-517) . His technique soon became known as "the Southern blot", and the paper has so far gathered >35 thousand citations. This number is a dramatic under-estimate of the impact of Southern blot in the field of molecular biology, as the technique has became routine and "common knowledge", which means that most practitioners no longer cite the original paper. In 1977, a variation of the technique was developed by Alwine et al. to detect RNA. The name "Northern blotting" was soon proposed for their technique, as a wordplay on the original method. The application of a similar technique on proteins is called "Western blotting".

Naming methods (or variations) using wordplay is not limited to biochemical techniques. In computational chemistry, novel basis sets obtained from the well-known aug-cc-pVXZ basis set family by decreasing the number of polarization basis functions have recently been proposed by Don Truhlar. In a humorous touch, the aug- prefix (originally an abreviation of augmented) was considered an abbreviation of August. The new, smaller, basis sets aretherefore called apr-cc-pVXZ, may-cc-pVXZ, jun-cc-pVXZ and jul-cc-pVXZ. Not outright comedy material, but it does bring a quirky smile to your lips, right?

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