5 Perks of Being a Taxonomer

Thousands upon thousands of new species are discovered and described every single year. For the scientists who discover and describe them, each new species offers an opportunity for paying tribute to loved ones and heroes, for terrible puns, and—occasionally—for revenge.

1. You Can Name a Species After Someone You Admire …

Scientists name new species after colleagues, loved ones, and all kinds of celebrities. There’s a khaki-striped tree snail (Crikey steveirwini) named after “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin and a fly with a golden booty (Scaptia beyonceae) named after Beyoncé. The parasitic wasp named after Shakira (Aleiodes shakirae) makes its host caterpillars wiggle like belly dancers. A prehistoric sea creature with scissor-like claws (Kooteninchela deppi) was named by a researcher with a fondness for Johnny Depp.

Lady Gaga’s got an entire genus of ferns, including Gaga monstraparva, or “Gaga’s little monster,” which is what she calls her fans. Scientists were inspired by the ferns’ gametophyte stage, which resembles one of the pop star’s flamboyant costumes. "We wanted to name this genus for Lady Gaga because of her fervent defense of equality and individual expression," researcher Kathleen Pryer told DukeToday.

2. … Or Someone You Hate.

Eighteenth-century botanist Carl Linnaeus was a pioneer of both taxonomy and fancy name-calling. He pulled no punches when christening new species, including the foul-smelling Siegesbeckia weeds, named for Linnaeus hater Johann Georg Siegesbeck.

Then there were Elsa Warburg and Orvar Isberg, the feuding paleontologists. In 1925, Warburg named a trilobite fossil Isbergia planifrons, or “Isberg’s flat forehead,” which is apparently Scandinavian for “Isberg is dumb.” Nine years later, Isberg struck back with Warburgia crassa, or “Warburg’s fat.” Burn.

These days, there are rules. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature prohibits species names using “intemperate language” or those “likely to give offense.”

Some species names walk the line. Researchers swore they meant it as a compliment when, in 2005, they named three species of slime mold beetles after George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. A similar claim was made in the 1930s by the German entomologist who named an eyeless, predatory cave beetle after Adolf Hitler.

3. Terrible Puns and Silly Names Are Allowed.

When scientists discovered deep-sea crabs with hairy chests, their first thoughts were of David Hasselhoff, and the Hoff crab was born. Just this year, biologists introduced us to the very fine peacock spiders known as Sparklemuffin and Skeletorus.

But the hijinks are not limited to common names. Latin names get in on the fun, too. There’s the spider Apopyllus now and the beetle with long mandibles known as Strategus longichomperus. There are the fly species Pieza kake, Pieza pi, and Pieza rhea. There’s the sea snail Ittibittium, which is, naturally, smaller than its cousins in the genus Bittium. There’s an entire genus of snails called Turbo.

And then there are the butts—so many butts. There’s Colon rectum (a beetle), Arses (a bird), and Enema pan (another beetle). There’s a snail named Natica josephine, which sounds fine to American ears but can apparently translate to “The Pope’s butt.” Science!

4. You Give the Best Wedding Gifts.

When everybody else is buying toasters and hand towels, a beetle can really stand out. In an article in The Coleopterist’s Bulletin introducing the genus Parkerola, the authors explained:

This new genus is dedicated to the authors’ friends, Heidi and Joseph Parker, on the occasion of their marriage … In early 2015, Joe and Heidi became parents of Jonah Wallace Parker.

Mr. and Mrs. Parker are themselves evolutionary biologists, and were likely pleased as punch at the gift.

Marine biologist Greg Rouse named a sea worm after his girlfriend. “She really liked it,” he said in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor.

So what about the rest of us, who probably won’t be discovering new species any time soon? Well, there’s hope—for the wealthy, anyway. If you have a lot of money—like, a lot—you don’t even have to discover a species before you can name it. You can just buy the rights. Research institutions have auctioned off naming rights for bats, sea slugs, spiders, frogs, and turtles. In 2005, an online casino shelled out $65,000 to name the GoldenPalace.com monkey (Callicebus aureipalatii). For real.

5. There’s Also, You Know, Being the First to Describe a Species.

Renown is great and all, but discovery is its own reward. And curiosity isn’t just for professionals in lab coats. With the advent of social media and mobile apps, citizen scientists are discovering and sharing cool things every day.

Whether drab or outrageous, cute or truck-faced, every single species we encounter is another reason to protect our weird-ass planet. We could go on exploring for all of human existence and never reach the end of the treasures this world is hiding. Hamlet was a whiner, but on this count, he was right: there is way more weird crap in heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy.*

*Slightly paraphrased.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.


Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.


Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.


Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”


Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.


Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.


Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."


In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.


In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.


Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.


There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.


Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.


Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.


As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.


Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.


In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

NASA Has a Plan to Stop the Next Asteroid That Threatens Life on Earth

An asteroid colliding catastrophically with Earth within your lifetime is unlikely, but not out of the question. According to NASA, objects large enough to threaten civilization hit the planet once every few million years or so. Fortunately, NASA has a plan for dealing with the next big one when it does arrive, Forbes reports.

According to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan [PDF] released by the White House on June 21, there are a few ways to handle an asteroid. The first is using a gravity tractor to pull it from its collision course. It may sound like something out of science fiction, but a gravity tractor would simply be a large spacecraft flying beside the asteroid and using its gravitational pull to nudge it one way or the other.

Another option would be to fly the spacecraft straight into the asteroid: The impact would hopefully be enough to alter the object's speed and trajectory. And if the asteroid is too massive to be stopped by a spacecraft, the final option is to go nuclear. A vehicle carrying a nuclear device would be launched at the space rock with the goal of either sending it in a different direction or breaking it up into smaller pieces.

Around 2021, NASA will test its plan to deflect an asteroid using a spacecraft, but even the most foolproof defense strategy will be worthless if we don’t see the asteroid coming. For that reason, the U.S. government will also be working on improving Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, the technology NASA uses to track asteroids. About 1500 NEOs are already detected each year, and thankfully, most of them go completely unnoticed by the public.

[h/t Forbes]


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