Entertaining and Informing: The Art of Fun Science Abbreviations

Have you ever had to read a paragraph or a sentence several times to understand it? I know I have. I often take 3-4 passes to understand particularly complex sentences, and it goes like this: the first pass, I just power through to see if I can get the overall gist of it. The second pass, I at least understand what each individual word means. Passes three and four: I now finally understand how all the words and clauses flow together! While I am happy to have understood a long chunk of text, I used up more time than I would have liked. It would have been so much better if the author had just written the same thing with fewer words! This is where abbreviations come into play. For example, I know enough about what “GPS” means without having to read “global positioning system.” And please don’t make me read “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus” when you could just write SCUBA!

It turns out that scientists love creating new abbreviations, especially acronyms with which they can show off some creativity and humor. Take, for example, the term “superconducting quantum interference device.” That’s a mouthful and I’m not even sure what it all means. The acronym for this instrument is SQUID. Isn’t that better? Sure, SQUID doesn’t tell us anything about what the device does, but at least you don’t want to stop reading immediately and go for a walk.

If I someone told me, “We can measure small magnetic fields using a Superconducting QUantum Interference Device,” I would understand that they are describing a measurement technique, but I would also be intimidated by the long name. Now, if someone told me, “We can measure small magnetic fields using an instrument called SQUID,” I’d be entertained and engaged, and I would get mostly the same information as from the first sentence. To truly understand how the method works, I would have to know more than just the acronym, of course, but for many readers that deeper explanation is not necessary.  

Two different squids in their natural habitats. On the left is a SQUID used to measure small magnetic fields and on the right is a squid that could be found in the ocean. See if you can spot the differences! (Left image courtesy of Paul Bender Chemistry Instrumentation Center at UW-Madison; right image by Citron )

In addition to reducing the intimidation factor that comes from scientific jargon, abbreviations can also help us to communicate more efficiently. For example, if I were writing a paper about a technique known as XPS, writing out X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy every time I referred to the technique would add so many unnecessary words! Writing XPS allows us to save room and saves the reader time. (XPS is good for figuring out what elements are present on the surface of a sample – you can read about it in this blog post). For really long names, initialisms and acronyms can also prevent the reader from forgetting what they were reading about in the first place!

When we encounter an acronym that is also a commonplace or slightly silly word, people who are not experts in that field may feel more actively engaged and our eyes don’t glaze over. It can also just be fun for scientists! This has led to a variety of amusing acronyms in science, including things like fliFISH, GANDALF, INADEQUATE, FLAMINGOS, and BRAINS. Thinking about all of these fun acronyms in science can inspire some creative connections between these acronyms and our own lives. Here’s one example in which my labmates were able to connect Louis Sachar’s Holes, physics concepts/techniques, and animals:

Fun science acronyms can inspire creativity, which helps us to engage with science in new ways (image by Paige Kinsley)

Science isn’t the only place where abbreviations are really useful. You probably encounter some of them every day in text messages, where initialisms like LOL and OMG are widespread and have become ingrained in our everyday vernacular because they convey the idea that something is funny or surprising without having to spell out each individual word. The same is true everywhere; we use abbreviations like IRA, ESPN, AARP, and many others to concisely convey our message.

Now, abbreviations aren’t all rainbows and butterflies. There is a danger in over-abbreviating; too many abbreviations can convolute the message, making it more difficult for a reader to understand what is being explained. That goes against the very purpose of abbreviations, and so writers should be wary of using more than a few abbreviations, and think about what our readers are already familiar with and what they need to know to understand our message. (For more on simplifying scientific jargon, see this blog post.)  

There is also danger in abbreviation inconsistency. Different people may know concepts by different abbreviations, which can be confusing! For example, I work on a battery material we call “NMC” in my group, but several papers I have read call it “NCM.” Both are accepted initialisms in the scientific community, but ordering the letters in different ways can be confusing.

Another warning for abbreviation use: abbreviations can feel exclusionary if they aren’t equally understood by everyone. If you are in a conversation with several people and someone says an acronym or initialism you aren’t familiar with, you might feel left out. This is crucially important in all fields of study, especially when considering that your readers will come from a diverse range of backgrounds. If I texted my parents to say “WYD RN? I have NMC in XPS” they might just scratch their heads, whereas my labmates would immediately understand because of our shared vocabulary.

As another example, I was born and raised in the Midwest of the United States, so I grew up with the phrase “ope.” It’s a very common thing for us to say, and basically is a placeholder used to politely get someone’s attention. If I came up with a new scientific acronym OPE, many of my Midwestern peers would find it hilarious. It would not be funny, however, to someone who did not know about our use of the word “ope”, and depending on the context could therefore create a sense of exclusion. We must also be careful of crossing lines or stepping on toes as well; we are professionals and do not want to undercut hard work with cheap humor.

All of this is to say, Please Abbreviate Responsibly (PAR)! When we responsibly use them, abbreviations can be a great way to save time, avoid over-complication, and even engage readers/listeners. Please enjoy a list of some fun science acronyms that we have compiled below!

Fun Science Acronyms

  • BALM: Binding Activated Localization Microscopy – images structures in cell nuclei
  • BLAST: Basic Local Alignment Search Tool – helps compare gene and protein sequences across organism. Also gives scientists the ability to say “BLAST it”
  • BRAINS: Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientists – recognizing new scientists who will transform understanding and treatment of mental illnesses
  • COLD: Cryogenic Optical Localization in 3D – localizes fluorescent sites in biomolecules
  • DOUBTFUL: Double Quantum Transitions for Finding Unresolved Lines – finding carbons based on the coupling to a known carbon
  • FISH: Fluorescence In-Situ Hybridization – fluorescence microscopy technique to localize certain DNA sequences on chromosomes
  • FLAMINGOS: Florida Multi-object Imaging Near-infrared Grism Observational Spectrometer – investigating interstellar masses/energy
  • fliFISH: fluctuation localization imaging-based FISH – counts RNA in single cells
  • GANDALF: Gas AND Absorption Line Fitting Algorithm – separates background signals from signals of interest in interstellar spectroscopy
  • INADEQUATE: Incredible Natural Abundance Double Quantum Transfer Experiment – determines which signal arises from neighboring carbons
  • LIMON: 3D Light Microscopical Nanosizing
  • NOESY and COSY: Nuclear Overhauser Effect Spectroscopy and Correlation Spectroscopy – two different types of experiments that reveal how carbons and hydrogens are connected to reveal a molecules structure
  • PAINT: Points Accumulation for Imaging in Nanoscale Topography – localizes fluorescent molecule adsorption event and kinetics
  • PALM: PhotoActivated Localization Microscopy – same as STORM, but controlled photoswitching
  • RAFT: Reversible Addition-Fragmentation chain-Transfer – polymerization technique
  • ROMP: Ring-Opening Metathesis Polymerization – more polymerization!
  • SQUID: Superconducting Quantum Interference Device – measures small magnetic fields
  • STORM: Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy – random photoswitching allows for localization