On eponyms

7 Mar

I recently listened to two episodes of a podcast which were entirely dedicated to eponyms.  That first episode of the Allusionist was cute and fun, referring to how British people call pens “Bics” or “Biros”, while this second episode is a bit darker and has to do with medical terminology.  For instance, by this point “Downs syndrome” has entered popular culture and so even as the medical community starts calling it Trisomy 21 (fun fact my first prenatal test with this pregnancy came back with a high risk of Trisomy 21 so I took a second genetic test which cleared me), it’s unclear if it’ll ever change in our minds.  But why should medical conditions be named after generally egotistical men who “discovered” them?  I think it’s ridiculous that Braxton-Hicks contractions are named after this English dude who “discovered” them in 1872, while women have been having false or practice contractions LITERALLY FOREVER.

This comes up a fair bit in math, as we like to name things after people but then later change the name to make more sense OR vice versa.  For instance, “Outer Space” is actually written as CV_n(X) which stands for Culler-Vogtmann space even though everyone says “outer space” aloud.  Funnily in that article I just linked Vogtmann writes it as \mathcal{O}_n but I haven’t seen anyone else write it that way.  Another funny one is right angled Artin groups, which were originally called “graph groups” but now everyone says “raags”.  Incidentally this is a great introduction to RAAGS (sometimes written raAgs).

Some spaces don’t have any alternative names and should.  The one I’m thinking of now is Teichmüller space– every day dozens of mathematicians and physicists refer to this space and the accompanying theory, which feels like we’re honoring Teichmüller.  This is not a person whom I particularly want to honor every day, but like the Downs syndrome problem I doubt we’ll be able to change the name to “complex structure space” or “marked surfaces space”.  I didn’t know any of this stuff about Teichmuller until reading a wonderful interview of Autumn Kent by Evelyn Lamb.  Here’s a pull quote; most of it is Autumn and the Note is by Evelyn.

There is a dangerous amount of tolerance of intolerable people in academia based on the principle that we are all dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and beauty and that a person’s academic work makes them a person worthy of mutual respect. This principle is wrong.

Bers famously quoted Plutarch in defense of his admiration for Teichmueller’s work: “It does not of necessity follow that, if the work delights you with its grace, the one who wrought it is worthy of your esteem.” This is of course true, but Teichmueller was still a piece of sh*t and if he were alive today I would not be his friend on Facebook. [Note: Oswald Teichmueller (1913-1943) was a German mathematician and literally a card-carrying Nazi. As a student, he organized a boycott of Edmund Landau, a Jewish math professor at the University of Göttingen. He was killed fighting for the Third Reich in World War II.] I would not invite him to an academic conference. The pursuit of knowledge and beauty is admirable, but it should not be undertaken at the expense of the bodies and souls of marginalized people. If my work would result in violence I would abandon it.

There are a LOT of goodies in that interview and I highly, highly recommend it.  In fact I wrote this entire post just to share this interview with you, but I snuck it in via eponyms (and also I’ve been having a lot of practice contractions lately and wanted you to know.  Due date is March 29!)


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