ATOM: What's In A Name?


Note about this blog. Professor Frank Close, one of the founders of ATOM, wrote this piece in February 2020 as part of a series of posts about ATOM from some of those who founded the Festival seven years ago.


With its cancellation, we're publishing it now as part of an occasional series of posts whilst we reschedule events and plan future festivals. You can learn more about Professor Close - including his work with CERN, Rutherford Appleton Lab, his 1993 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and his new career as a historian of atomic spies - in this interview with Jim Al-Khalili in The Life Scientific. Frank was also interviewed for the Stories from Science podcast.

Science seems awash with acronyms. NASA, CERN, DNA are all familiar even if we do not know what they stand for. DNA is certainly easier to remember, say and spell than DeoxyriboNucleic Acid and has become a name in its own right. NASA and CERN too are organisations for whom the acronyms have become names, for otherwise logically they should include the prefix “The”. Acronyms that can be spoken like words do not include “the,” whereas those that are clearly acronyms and have to be spelled out letter by letter tend to keep the prefix. Thus, the forerunner at CERN (not “The CERN”) to “The LHC” was “LEP”.
A few miles south of Abingdon on the Harwell Campus is The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory – or “RAL”. This is yet another example of a TLA – which of course stands appropriately for Three Letter Acronym. When forty years ago the Rutherford Laboratory merged with the Appleton Lab to form the modern institution, a competition was held to choose a name. One suggestion to recognise internationalism by the French form Institut Rutherford Appleton was immediately discounted due to its unfortunate TLA as was the non-TLA Appleton Rutherford Scientific Establishment.


Parents are well advised to ponder before choosing the birth names of their offspring. The name can subliminally mould the personality of the child, and – especially in the case of boys - the chance of being bullied at school. The Jacob Rees-Mogg children, sporting names like Alphege, Boniface, might have a hard time in an inner-city schoolyard, whereas one named Bert (can one name a baby, Bert?) would probably attract less attention there.


Culham Science Centre near Abingdon - home of JET - in the Oxfordshire countryside

Nearly a decade ago, a group of Abingdonians considered the name for their new child – a festival of science and engineering to be held annually in the town. The burghers of our ancient town had themselves realised the importance of a name by upgrading the modest one of Abingdon to its modern form: “Abingdon-on-Thames.” The Abingdon on Thames Festival of Science and Engineering, while a fair representation of the concept, was such a mouthful that it was a non-starter. What’s more the title alone would leave little room for easily visible information on posters.


The brainstorming quickly identified a central feature of a festival in Abingdon: it would be literally at the centre – or even the “epicentre” – of big science in the United Kingdom. Surrounded by the likes of the aforementioned RAL, Harwell, Culham, Oxford, and the international TLA of JET, among a host of others, Abingdon is indeed at the heart of British Science and many who live hereabouts have family members who have at some time in their lives worked at one of these institutions.


From this we looked for a single word that would naturally be associated with all of science. The great physicist Richard Feynman once said that if the human race were almost wiped out and one had to leave one piece of information about the universe for any renaissance to build on, he argued that it should be that everything is made of atoms.


Inspired by this thought we briefly contemplated calling the festival: ATOMIC. This was once the local pet name for Harwell, which could make some erroneously think we were some offshoot of Harwell. Also “Atomic” carries negative associations for many via Atomic Weapons and Atomic Bombs. Somehow, we returned to Feynman’s insight and cut off the “ic” – ATOM was born.


Once created, new implications for the name rapidly followed: ATOM as a four-letter acronym.


The ATOM Tee - what all smart science communicators should be wearing

Originally the idea was to hold the festival in or around the time of National Science Week in March. This inspired the thought that ATOM is: Abingdon on Thames, Oxfordshire, in March. The possibility of holding it around the time of the May Bank Holiday was also consistent with ATOM as was the possibility of holding it around Midsummer.


ATOM as an acronym could be used for celebrating voyages of discovery from Abingdon TO the Moon, Abingdon TO Mars, or indeed anywhere in the Milky Way.


What is certain is that ATOM fits beautifully on a tee-shirt. These are designer must-haves in some areas of local science and excellent presents for the next generation of scientist. And indeed, for anyone who loves science,  or just likes natty tee-shirts.


Addendum: originally this article was to have finished with an exhortation to put the date of ATOM 2020 in your diary. Instead, we'll ask you to put the (currently provisional) date in your diary: 13-21st March 2021

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