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09 — Scientific names.

2015-03-01. By Patrick.

In my last entry, I wrote about Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Some people may say that's an impossible name to learn or to use in regular conversation. That's nonsense. First, we (humans) love to learn all sorts of stuff, search for patterns, make connections. Second, we have a great facility with making complex sounds that have meaning.

A bit further down this entry, I will go over exactly how I go about learning the name of an organism. But first I want to explore my experience with the Chlamydomonas reinhardtii name and why people choose one name as opposed to another.

Chlamydomonas reinhardtii does not have a common name as far as I known. So, using a common name is not an option. I have spoken to many people that have learned about Chlamydomonas reinhardtii through their work. Most refer to it simply as Chlamydomonas because the species is understood from the context. Many refer to it simply as 'Chlamy'.

There is propensity in America to use diminutives. When I first came to live permanently in the US, I told new friends that my name was Patrick. When I was called Pat, I would sometimes say that actually I used Patrick not Pat. But I quickly stopped because it didn't influence them much. I'll say Chlamy sometimes. Mostly I don't. I'm not sure why. I definitely don't have a problem with others using diminutives and I tend to use Chlamy when others around me do.

But what about how difficult it is to pronounce? Well, some English is pretty awful to pronounce. Foreigners understand that. But as foreigners demonstrate, we humans have an incredible ability with complex sounds. And sometimes we do it just for fun. I have come across plenty of geeky kids that have learned complicated names of dinosaurs, fantasy characters, equipment from science fiction. It's all about the passion.

Someone who says that they can't remember complex scientific names is usually someone who needs to memorize them for a test. That's a different problem; similar to having to learn a bunch of reactions in organic chemistry class. In this blog entry, I'm talking about a totally different process; about learning something because you enjoy it. If you're forced to learn some scientific names for whatever reason, you need to look elsewhere. But if you're just interested in science and come across scientific names, read on.

The situation: You're reading about a subject and find that it fascinates you. Then you come across a scientific name and think I'll never remember that. First don't worry about it. If your interest lasts, the scientific name will come. So have confidence. The only important step is to not ignore it while thinking "I'll never remember that anyway." Pause and take a look at the name. First look at the name carefully and see if you can't recognize or even make up meanings for parts of the name. Second, pick out a couple things about it to recognize it. Using a diminutive is a particularly good strategy at this stage. Then move on with your reading. That's all there is to it. Next time you pick up an article and come across the name. Pause again. Look at it with fresh interest. Slowly it will become part of you. There is no need to rush it.

To get comfortable with the name, you will need to say it out loud. Try to break it down into a few separate words and say them individually. Then put it together. Chlamydomonas reinhardtii - Klamy, Monas, Domonas. Ok I can say these individually, so... Klamy-domonas, yup. That works. Rine, hard, tee. Hum, hard-tee will be a bit tough. Then there is the second 'i' at the end. All just add it on as the letter i is pronounced. Rine hard tee eye. Rine hard-tee-eye. After trying to say it faster a couple times, it comes pretty easily. Klamy-domonas rine-hard-tee-eye. Not exactly how I say it, but pretty close.

Now how to say it correctly? Again, don't worry about it yet. But do make sure you talk clearly. Mumbling is a pain to everybody. Often, I will come across someone who works with an organism and I'm the first to say the name. Usually they don't correct me and I think they are just being polite. No problem. Then they will say the name differently. So I'll try to repeat it and add "So that's how you say it!" Sometimes they will just reply "I think so." And again they're usually being polite since they know exactly how to pronounce it. Other names, they don't know more about the organism than I do and they will reply, "Actually, I'm not sure how to pronounce it." And that's fine. See, there are no worries.

It's like trying to use words in a foreign language. You want to get better, so during a conversation you pay attention to how the words are pronounced. But mostly, you're just trying to communicate. Even within a scientific field, there can be disagreements about pronunciation. It's not so much like dialects. It's rather like dead languages; different have different accepted pronunciations.

And really, these scientific names are incredibly useful. The usual arguments are correct. They make it clear to which organism we are referring. If I see an article about the green sea urchin, I don't mind the author using "green sea urchin" in most of the article. I would actually be happy with just "urchin". But if I don't see it specified somewhere that she is writing about Strongylocentrotus drobachiensis, I'm not sure I can figure out what she is writing about. I actually have never heard of two different organisms called the green sea urchin. But that's not the point. I'm not a marine biologist and I want to know that I won't be confused when I read another article about Strongylocentrotus drobachiensis. In particular, the scientific names bring disagreements to the fore. There can only be one name per species. So when there are several, we know there is some disagreement; and that's good. Of course many of the model organisms used in science only have no common name. The round worm Caenorhabditis elegans, Escherichia coli. Others have at least one common name but that name could refer to more than one species. I'm not sure, but the following could fall in that category: The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, the purple sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus.

So if you're used to skipping over scientific names, keep an eye out for them. Over time, they will become like old friends.

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