Visit theallusionist.org/technobabble to read more about and listen to this episode.
HZ: This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, prepare language for takeoff.
Coming up in today’s show: technobabble! The sciency jargon that sounds clever, but is it? Jargon, by the way, is from an Old French word that meant the chattering of birds, the word supposedly imitating that sound.
ERIC MOLINSKY: Ha. That's weird. I don't feel like jargon to me sounds like birds chirping.
HZ: No, me neither. It is a French word - maybe French birds chirp in a way that sounds more like 'jargon'?
ERIC MOLINSKY: Oh right. The way that frogs in Japan say ‘kero kero’.
HZ: And dogs in Russian say ‘gav gav’.
HZ: That's Eric Molinsky, host of one of my favourite podcasts, Imaginary Worlds, which is about science fiction and fantasy and comic books and the tropes therein. We've collaborated on a pair of episodes about technobabble, and when you listen to both, you'll hear how science fiction relates to science fact. Hear the Imaginary Worlds technobabble episode at imaginaryworldspodcast.org/technobabble.html, or on your podblaster of choice.
This episode is sponsored by Babbel - not technobabble, Babbel, the #1 selling language learning app in the world, which you can use on your smartphone, tablet or desktop. Do you learn best by reading and writing or hearing and speaking? Either way, Babbel’s got you covered. The lessons are each quick and fun, like little games where you’re competing against yourself - the best and worst opponent - and they’re designed to help the words and phrases lodge in your head so you start using them confidently, and soon you’re babbling away in French, Spanish, Indonesian, Russian - there are fourteen languages to choose from on Babbel. Allusionist listeners can get three months of Babbel for FREE when you sign up for three months. Visit babbel.com/podcast and use the offer code ALLUSIONIST.
On with the show.
HZ: Eric Molinsky of Imaginary Worlds, what tweaked your interest in technobabble?
ERIC MOLINSKY: The thing that really sold me on this is I have a soft spot for actors who can really sell you on the technobabble. You really believe that they understand what they’re talking about. I can always tell when they can’t get it right, when they’re intimidated by their own technobabble. My whole show is about the suspension of disbelief, in trying to figure out why we believe in these imaginary worlds, is there one technobabble that anchors us in this world and another that doesn’t? Maybe it’s not the actor’s fault. Maybe it’s the technobabble’s fault. So that’s why I wanted to contact you, to talk about what makes good technobabble.
HZ: When you raised this subject, Eric, the impression that immediately sprang to my mind thanks to science fiction is that of space- and science-related vocabulary being very elaborate, very polysyllabic, lots of suffixes and classical language. But I spoke to a bona fide astrophysicist -
KATIE MACK: My name is Katie Mack and I am a theoretical astrophysicist.
HZ: And she pointed out that in reality, a lot of the terms she’s using are not technobabbly at all; they are really simple.
KATIE MACK: Yeah, there's this kind of funny trend in parts of physics of naming things in a very simplistic way, and sometimes that's by accident and sometimes it's kind of as an inside joke, I think. So, for example, the Big Bang: we got the name 'Big Bang' because this astronomer Fred Hoyle thought the idea was silly and wanted to make fun of it with a silly name. He didn't like the idea of an explosion starting in the universe - and it's not an explosion anyway, it's kind of different from that. But he used the Big Bang as this term to make fun of that idea. And then it just kind of stuck.
HZ: I never knew that it was like an ironic name.
KATIE MACK: Yeah. Yeah. It was supposed to be like, "Isn't this ridiculous?" And then people started referring to it by that. And now we're just - we're stuck with the big bang theory as the way we talk about how the universe began. So that was unfortunate but that that stuck. And then we have other things like dark matter, dark energy, black holes, where they sound like these very sort of simple ideas; and sometimes that's just because we don't have any better way to talk about this stuff without getting super technical. So we have to have a term that just gives a vague impression of what's going on and then we all agree to use that term to talk about that thing.
HZ: Dark matter is very vague, though. That could be Vegemite.
KATIE MACK: And it's frustrating because it's not dark; it's invisible. But I guess ‘invisible matter’ sounds too out there. I think it was coined like in the 30s as some kind of like, “We don't see it, so we call it 'dark'.” And that just kind of stuck. But then people get it confused with dark energy which is kind of a very different thing. And there have been attempts to rename dark matter and dark energy. Every once in a while, people are like, "No, we should call it 'invisible matter'." And there's another physicist, Sean Carroll, who thinks we should call dark energy ‘smooth tension’ to be like a better description of how it works.
HZ: That sounds like a music genre.
KATIE MACK: Yeah. It doesn't have the same kind of like punch; dark energy sounds very very powerful and scary. So I guess we're stuck with that one too.
HZ: Like we’re stuck with ‘black hole’.
KATIE MACK: So black hole: there were different ways to talk about what a black hole is before the term 'black hole' was coined. At some point it was called a dark star. We need a word for this thing that sucks everything in and doesn't allow light out and 'black hole' just kind of worked for that.
HZ: The term really caught on in 1967, when the theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler started using it in lectures after one of his students became so annoyed by him repeatedly saying “gravitationally completely collapsed object' that they shouted out, “Why not call it a black hole?” Thus, John Archibald Wheeler is often credited with coining ‘black hole’. He did coin the term ‘wormhole’. But not ‘black hole’. The astronomy sense of ‘black hole’ started appearing in print in January 1964, and had reportedly already been in use for a few years before that at least - apparently the physicist Robert Dicke was fond of describing gravitationally collapsed objects as being like “the Black Hole of Calcutta” - indeed, according to Robert Dicke’s children, whenever they lost something, he would shout that "it must have been sucked into the black hole of Calcutta." Somewhat disproportionate to make a reference to the notorious jail cell in India in which on 20 June 1756, 146 prisoners of war were incarcerated in a space intended to hold just four people, and in those overstuffed confines only 23 survived the night. Prison disaster, to kids’ mislaid possessions, to a collapsed star of extraordinary density; that’s the route ‘black hole’ took to meaning a black hole.
KATIE MACK: But it's not really a hole. And in practice, they're not black at all; black holes are some of the brightest things in the universe, just because the stuff that falls into them, as it's falling in it spins around and it heats up and it sort of glows in this whirlpool around the hole.
HZ: I don't know what you could call it, then; 'really bright hole' sounds wrong. Maybe in time?
KATIE MACK: I guess the thing is, when you have something that really is just this incredibly complicated mathematical construct, it's useful to just have a simple name. You always have to just call it something. And I think that a lot of times people just use whatever sort of comes to mind and is not too complicated and will do for the moment, and then sometimes that sticks. But then every once in a while, there's really creative ideas, like the quarks.
HZ: In 1964, the American physicist Murray Gell-Mann chose the term ‘quarks’ for the elementary particles, having encountered the word in James Joyce’s 1939 novel Finnegan’s Wake.
KATIE MACK: And that was the word that the discoverer of this particle thought would be cool. It kind of conveys that it's a very strange little thing.
HZ: There are numerous words used in science that were acquired from fiction, particularly science fiction. Jupiter and Saturn weren’t known as gas giants until James Blish coined the term in a story published in 1952. Comic book artist Jack Binder coined ‘zero gravity’ in 1938 in a story for the science fiction magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Arthur C Clarke shortened it to ‘zero-G’ in his 1952 novel Islands in the Sky. Jack Williamson wrote science fiction over seven decades, and came up with genetic engineering, ion drive, terraform.
ERIC MOLINSKY: Yeah. I mean ‘robot’ comes from a Czech play called R.U.R.
HZ: R.U.R. stood for 'Rossum’s Universal Robots', which in the play were artificial humans made in a factory, who - spoiler! - end up destroying the human race. The play, first staged in 1921, was written by Karel Čapek, although his brother Josef actually came up with the term ‘robot’, from the Czech word ‘robota’, meaning hard work or drudgery, particularly forced labour. It makes some sense to me that real life borrowed from fiction because fiction had already had to solve the problem of what to call something before that thing existed in reality. So for instance, the word 'astronaut', appeared in science fiction in 1880 as the name of a spacecraft, and then the 1920s to mean space traveller - obviously quite a while before there were real life astronauts. And by the time those concepts are real, why not use the vocabulary that's already been established by fiction - or borrow from other fields that are analogous?
MANAN ARYA: So in the field that I work with is structural engineering for spacecraft, a lot of the terms are borrowed from sailing, it turns out.
HZ: This is Manan Arya, a technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.
MANAN ARYA: I should add at this point that nothing I'm saying are official views of the jet propulsion lab, Caltech or NASA; these are just my points of view.
HZ: It’s alright, Manan, it’s not controversial to say space borrowed terms from sailing - ‘astronaut’ itself is from the Greek words ἄστρον, meaning "star", and ναύτης, meaning "sailor".
MANAN ARYA: So a thing that I'm working on right now, a project called Starshade, has structural members that are called battens and masts and longerons, and these are kind of terms that have existed in the world of construction and sailing or or airplane building. A lot of the terms are borrowed from airplanes; so a longeron is a structural member that runs the length of an airframe. And we use it as something else entirely. A batten is a structural number that goes in a sail of a sailboat. And because a lot of the unfolding spacecraft I end up working on look like sails or sailboats, there's battens floating around everywhere, there's masts. The project I'm working on has longerons, it's got a version of the longeron that's a bit shorter. So obviously we call them 'shorterons'.
HZ: When you’re innovating scientifically, you get to innovate linguistically.
MANAN ARYA: Engineering is fundamentally so intensely creative, we're just making new things all the time. You have to come up with names of things.
KATIE MACK: I don't know if this is specific to astronomy and physics, but we really love giving projects ridiculous acronyms. So it's frequently done that the name of the thing is decided and then we construct an acronym around that. Or they have some idea for for what the name of the thing should be. And then they write it down and the letters don't spell a word, but they almost do. And so they tweak it until they do. And there have been some fantastically extravagant examples of that, where people just take the letters from any part of the word to put together to make the acronym. I've seen things where they've used like the last letter of a word.
HZ: I think that's against acronym rules.
KATIE MACK: Yeah. So for example there was a famous experiment a balloon experiment that was out there to measure the cosmic microwave background stuff. And they called it BOOMERANG. And you might wonder how you could get all of those letters in a reasonable order in the name of an experiment. So the way they did is they called it Balloon Observations Of Millimetric Extragalactic Radiation ANd Geophysics. So the AN of 'and' is in there.
HZ: Argh! Why do people love coming up with acronyms?
MANAN ARYA: My friends get a kick out of inventing acronyms for missions and coming up with fun mission name that they can then acronymise into something meaningful. They use online Scrabble generators or Scrabble solvers will tell you the first letters are useful or relevant words in the Scrabble generation Scrabble generation will generate words out of these letters.
HZ: And then they backwards engineer the full meaning?
MANAN ARYA: Yep! I feel like you as the creator as a designer or as a team of designers or team of creators have earned the right to name something that you think is meaningful. And I want to have that. If I end up making something that is going to create lasting change, I want to be able to name it and not leave it up to the whims of some online Scrabble generator.
HZ: Which probably doesn’t even have whims; it’s just programming.
MANAN ARYA: No, it doesn’t!
HZ: I get asked all the time if a word is an acronym. And they almost never are. But I suppose people want to feel like there are patterns in things; that's a kind of sense that they can grasp onto.
MANAN ARYA: Yes, that there's a clear line of reasoning from what a thing does and what its name is. Or what a word is and how it came to be. I think it's this idea that we as engineers have to be sensible people so we must name things sensibly.
HZ: Manan is currently working on a one and a half metre long antenna that can fold into a box the size of a toaster oven.
MANAN ARYA: It's called LADER. It stands for a large deployable reflector - pick the appropriate letters in that acronym. You're trying to make it sound like it's actually describing, the name describes the object but it's really just obfuscating because you're calling it 'ladder’.
HZ: It's not a ladder.
MANAN ARYA: It's not a ladder!
KATIE MACK: When you look at these acronyms and and see how they're built, sometimes it's just extremely cringeworthy.
HZ: Do you think they just wanted to give it a name and then they reverse engineered the acronym?
KATIE MACK: Yeah, yeah, that definitely is a thing that happens.
MANAN ARYA: One particular NASA project that I'm a huge fan of that has a very nice name is the Juno Mission. There's no acronym there; it's the Juno Mission. and the Juno Mission is a mission to Jupiter. And it's named for the wife of Jupiter, Juno, who when Jupiter hid himself in clouds to conceal has his merrymaking, Juno looked through the clouds and could reveal the true nature of Jupiter. And that's exactly what the mission is doing: it's looking through the clouds of Jupiter to reveal what's actually going on inside Jupiter, and I think that's a beautiful name. Then there are completely uninspired name: the next Mars rover is called Mars 2020. It's because it's going to Mars in 2020.
HZ: I can see why they with that; it's practical. It works.
MANAN ARYA: It's very sensible. When it gets there, they'll name it something nice. The Curiosity Rover was not called Curiosity until it got there.
HZ: Sure, they might call it something nice. But can you really trust them not to make an acronym from MARS. They just can’t resist an acronym. Or an acronym within an acronym. Like ‘GALAH’.
KATIE MACK: So a galah is a kind of Australian bird, that stands for GALactic Archaeology with Hermes, and then HERMES is the name of an instrument that itself is an acronym. HERMES is a high efficiency end resolution multiday element spectrograph for the AAT. And of course the AAT is also an acronym for Anglo-Australian Telescope.
HZ: We're getting into kind of fractal levels of acronymage.
KATIE MACK: Yeah they can be nested. It gets very complicated. But then occasionally, we have the names of telescopes like the VLA which is the Very Large Array. And there's the ELT, which is the Extremely Large Telescope.
HZ: What happens when someone builds a much much larger telescope than that?
KATIE MACK: Well, for a while there was a project in the works called OWL, which was the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope. And that would have been indeed about three times as big as the ELT. So you can just keep going. I don't know if the next one is the stupendously mind blowingly large telescope.
MANAN ARYA: We use the term TLA a lot. A TLA is a Three Letter Acronym.
HZ: That's very meta.
MANAN ARYA: It's got to the point where JPL has a directory of TLAs and describing what particular TLA is. Because it just happens too much where you are reading something and it’s just TLA soup.
HZ: How many three letter acronyms are possible?
MANAN ARYA: Twenty-six to the power of three… Seventeen thousand five hundred and seventy six.
HZ: That may sound like a lot, but they’re already doubling up. Can’t escape the acronyms!
The real world technobabble causes Manan some pain, but in fiction, not so much.
MANAN ARYA: Technobabble or just jargon in fiction: that delights me. That's just fun to hear. It's like I'm sure cops have a chuckle when they watch CSI, or doctors enjoy watching bad depictions or hospital life the same way I enjoy people talking about reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, or flux capacitors. I love that term. So that doesn't annoy me, that's just fun, that's delightful, it's cute. They're trying.
HZ: For Katie Mack, though, the way scientific language is used in fiction creates a real world problem, when it’s used to give the impression that science is exclusive and beyond the comprehension of most of us.
KATIE MACK: If you watch something like Star Trek, there's always words like the tachyon beam and the inertial compensators, and you get these really multisyllabic constructions, and that's how you know that you're not supposed to understand it, and you're supposed to just file it away as ‘complicated thing’. So I think that's the way that we signal to people that you're supposed to just take that as a given because it's technical and difficult and you're not going to get it, and therefore you don't have to fact check it in your head. I'm a physicist, so I'm not a good audience for that sort of thing; I'm clearly not objective. But I also feel like sometimes that that kind of thing can scare people away from real science. When scientific jargon stands in for "That's too complicated, I can't possibly understand it," I think that makes people think, "Oh, science is too complicated, I can't possibly understand it.”
HZ: I assume some of the motivation for this is them not wanting to break the fantasy world that they've created. So they come up with these words that seem strange enough to fit in with a different world, but still identifiable enough that the audience - and the actors - can assimilate them sufficiently without being stopped in their tracks. And I wonder, if science fiction used terms as simple as ‘black hole’ and ‘big bang’, the audience just wouldn't accept it: it might seem like the writers had failed to be imaginative, and the real terms are just too banal to seem realistic in a science fiction context.
KATIE MACK: Yeah. I wonder about that. Like if they just call it something like the heat death or the big bang or something, I think people would be like, "Eh."
HZ: Bit basic.
KATIE MACK: Yeah. Yeah.
HZ: If you haven’t already heard the Imaginary Worlds episode about technobabble, listen right after this episode at imaginaryworldspodcast.org/technobabble.html. In it there’s one of the people who was actually responsible for movie technobabble.
ERIC MOLINSKY: Yeah. So actually I talked with Jennifer Ouellette who used to be part of an organization that played kind of matchmaker between Hollywood directors who needed legitimate-sounding technobabble and scientists, who might want to work on Hollywood films. I was more fascinated by why on earth would a scientist take time out of their lives to work on Hollywood films. I totally understand why a director would be like, "Yeah, give me some scientists to come up with technobabble." But a lot of them grew up watching movies and TV and were inspired by like Star Trek to go into science and you know they're kind of geeking out. If anything she needs to temper their expectations and be like oh you're not going to be on the set, pulling Mark Ruffalo aside and being like, “I don’t know, it doesn't really sound very believable.”
ERIC MOLINSKY: I know, I know; it’s a bummer.
HZ: Other fun tidbits in the episode: why they wouldn’t use the word ‘wormhole’ in the film Thor. And that technobabble classic, the tachyon. And, the scientist and novelist Gregory Benford, who was actually friends with Isaac Asimov.
ERIC MOLINSKY: Gregory Benford tells the story about how he confronted Isaac Asimov about the positronic brain and it was all ready to tell him why this term made no sense. And Isaac Asimov apparently immediately copped to it and was just like, "Oh yeah, I know it's a totally ridiculous term. I just wanted it to sound scientific, and then for the reader to just think, 'Oh, that sounds legit'. And then just move on." And I was actually pretty surprised how quickly somebody like Isaac Asimov would own up to the silliness of his own technobabble. To me he's such a giant in the field, but to me that brings him down to earth.
HZ: Exactly. He doesn't have to prove himself; he's Isaac bloody Asimov!
ERIC MOLINSKY: "Look kid, it was nothing! I made it up."
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. The music is by Martin Austwick, hear more of his work at palebirdmusic.com.
Big thanks to Helen Keen, Katie Mack, Manan Arya, and most of all, Eric Molinsky of the excellent Imaginary Worlds podcast, about science fiction and fantasy. I’m not really into those genres, but I love the show. Dive in at imaginaryworldspodcast.org.