What's in a Name?

Last week I had the amazing opportunity to participate in some geologic field work in Hawaii.  Hawaii is of particular interest to planetary scientists because it's considered one of the best analogues to Mars here on Earth.  The island is literally forming beneath our feet - a great laboratory for the processes which help shape planetary surfaces.  The relatively-safe volcanoes, which are still very active today, also provide an ideal test bed for life-saving volcano research on this planet.

So after an eight-hour flight from Boulder, I found myself climbing mountains, hiking over recent (30 years ago!) lava flows, and swimming in beaches lined with green sand.  Paradise!  What I remember most, however, is not the night sky glowing red with volcanic light or the incredible winds that seemed to blow constantly, but the dizzying array of geologic terminology I encountered.  It got me thinking: are we killing ourselves with jargon?

Hyaloclastite, hedenbergite, rhyolite, dacite; the list went on and on.  The geologists among us bandied about these terms with remarkable fluidity.  Initially, I tried to maintain a list of the important ones in my head, but I was soon overwhelmed.  What most amazed me was not that they could keep so many names straight - everything needs a name, after all.  What truly made my head spin was that each name had a formation mechanism implied, so that the geologist could discuss an entire process without ever needing to use an English word.  A typical conversation might go something like:

"Hey, check out this rock!"
"Wow, I bet that's [mineral A].  How do you think it formed?"
"I suspect that [mineral B] became [mineral C], which becomes [mineral A] on the surface."
"Of course!  It must all take place in a subduction zone..."

Amazing: all the location, composition, and formation of this funny looking rock wrapped up in three names.

Now, I don't want to suggest that geology alone is at fault here.  Astronomy, too, has an endless array of acronyms and obscure terminology (Why are stellar types still labelled O,B,A,F,G,K,M?).  But, I think that there are better ways of doing these things.  Take the nomenclature of chemistry, for example.  Initially it seems just as dense (or denser!) than anything else discussed here, but it actually follows a series of specific rules.  Learn the rules and suddenly the names contain a bunch of useful information.  Could Geology do the same thing?  Instead of naming most minerals after their discoverer, they could be named with a regular pattern which contains all the same information, but in a more transparent way.

In the end, this is more important than just helping scientists from neighboring fields make contributions.  Dense terminology appears even denser to a public who doesn't have time (and shouldn't have to take it) to digest a wide range of scientific information.  We are failing to inform these people, and they should be one of our primary audiences.  Is a complicated, chemistry-esque nomenclature the right approach?  Maybe not, but it would be a step in the direction of standardization.

/