HOW TO GET YOUR OWN SCIENTIFIC EPONYM, AND, INTRODUCING THE ARBESMAN LIMIT

By | November 05, 2007 | archive, humour

Human nature is complex, fickle and strange. But there is one constant in people’s mercurial ways: people like to have things named after themselves. If you have a lot of money, this is straightforward: buildings and bridges are up for sale. If you were born a few hundred years ago, you could even get a country named after you. Even science is a naming goldmine: asteroids, species, cellular organelles, chemical elements. The list goes on. Those are all very interesting and nice, but somewhat everyday and mundane. And frankly, they all involve work.

What you’re clamoring for is something lofty, something timeless, and something that can be named without leaving your La-Z-Boy recliner. You are thinking about ideas. Mathematical formulas, physical constants, theorems, peculiar scientific phenomena-these all have the ability to be clothed in surnames. Some lucky people even get entire theories and worldviews, such as Marx or Murphy. What I provide here is a guide to getting an idea named after you. The steps are simple and very effective. Follow them carefully and you cannot go wrong.

But first, a cautionary note: do not be greedy, for there is a threshold. This upper barrier, which I term the Arbesman Limit, is the maximum number of concepts or ideas that can be named after a single person. This boundary is unknown, but I imagine it to hover in the neighborhood of twenty. Johann Dirichlet, a French mathematician from the nineteenth century, is probably somewhere near it, with about fifteen formulas and theorems named after him. Einstein also did well for himself, with probably around ten concepts associated with his name.

So, you want an eponym. Presumably you are below the Arbesman Limit, so that won’t be a limiting factor. First, take your surname and append one of the following suggested terms to it (feel free to make it possessive, if it sounds better that way):

Law
Dictum
Razor
Principle
Rule
Scale
Effect
Score
Number
Test
Criterion
Paradox
Symbol
Shift
Index
Formula
Measure
Postulate
[any Greek letter] Distance
Curve
Constant
Phenomenon

Okay, now you have your own idea, or at least a name for it. The next step is to give meat to this concept. Allow me to demonstrate the procedure by way of example. Suppose your name is Jenkins. You have settled on the term ‘Jenkins Measure’ due to its delightfully lilting cadence, but are at a loss as to its meaning. Simply allow your mind to wander. What are you interested in? What is strange about the world? What can be measured?

You (that is, Jenkins) happen to be a fan of sports and molecular biology. Naturally, your mind explores these realms. Molecular biology, you think. Cells, cellular machinery, nucleotides, you ponder. And then suddenly, DNA. Aha! It is so clear! Why hadn’t you thought of it before? The Jenkins Measure is simply the number of unspooled human haploid genomes required to stretch from the home plate to the center field fence of a baseball stadium. It is both elegant in its simplicity, and also neatly demonstrates the essential humanity of America’s greatest pastime. One quick back-of-the-envelope calculation and you are done: the Jenkins Measure is about 120. And now, you can lean back and enjoy the accolades from your colleagues in both academia and athletics, as they use it at every opportunity.

Of course, before you go out and begin to grace the world with your newly minted eponymous idea, don’t forget Stigler’s Law of Eponymy: “No scientific law is named after its original discoverer.” (Stephen Stigler attributes this to Robert Merton.) This law has the following implication: by naming a concept after yourself, you have ensured that someone else thought of the idea first. Good job, you copier.

With that, I wish you Godspeed on the creation of your scientific eponym. I expect to hear of it soon.

About Samuel Arbesman

Samuel Arbesman is a Computational Biology doctoral candidate at Cornell University and is interested in the study of all types of complex systems. As his scientific career is still in its infancy, he has not approached anywhere near the Arbesman Limit.