The Secret History of Cosmic Buzzwords You Didn’t Know

Supernova. In the 1930s, the wildly creative and legendarily irascible Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky realized that there were two very different classes of exploding stars: regular novas and others that were far brighter and more powerful. Establishing a tradition that would soon be copied by comic book writers, he called the more powerful type of explosion a “super-nova.”

Dark matter. Zwicky is also responsible for this word, and this discovery. In his studies of the motions of galaxies he realized that some additional unseen matter must be exerting a gravitational influence on them. In a forward-thinking 1933 paper he called this missing stuff dunkle Materie, or dark matter. We still don’t know what it is.

Big Bang. The now-famous name for the explosive origin of the universe was coined by someone who did not actually believe in the theory. Astronomer Fred Hoyle preferred a different, “steady state” model of the universe, in which it expanded but had no beginning or end. In a 1948 BBC radio show, Hoyle called the competing theory the “Big Bang.” Many scientists took the name as an attempt at ridicule, though Hoyle insisted he was just trying to clarify the difference between the two ideas.

Stylized timeline of the universe shows how dark energy is boosting the effect of the big band. Credit: Rhys Taylor, Cardiff University.

Stylized timeline of the universe shows how dark energy is boosting the effect of the big bang. Credit: Rhys Taylor, Cardiff University.

Black hole. Who actually came up with the name? We will never know. The name is credited to physicist John Wheeler, who developed much of the theoretical understanding of these bizarre objects. At a 1967 conference in New York City he asked the audience what to call the things. Someone in the audience shouted out “black hole.” Wheeler liked the idea, used it regularly thereafter, and the name stuck. The physicist Richard Feynman, one of Wheeler’s former students, chided him for picking a name with “naughty” connotations.

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