The “Name Number” for Geology, and for Other Professions

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

(Image: University of Edinburgh)

A new way to compare the branches of science

by Kevin Krajick, New York City, New York

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This paper describes a major scientific advance. We invite you to follow the author’s clear instructions, and calculate the Name Number for your own profession, and then to submit your results (and you must name names!) here. We hope to compile a comprehensive list, and so make it possible to compare each profession against all others.]

We don’t get to choose our name, but we do get to choose our calling. Or do we? Some people’s names are spookily related to their professions. The phenomenon is called “Nominative Determinism,” a term coined by John Hoyland of New Scientist magazine. How common is Nominative Determinism within any particular profession? No one knows. But now that I have raised the question, we must find out.

I have come up with a simple measurement that we can apply to any profession. It’s called the “Name Number.” The Name Number for a particular profession is the percentage of people in that profession who have names that are related their work. I could have called it the “Name Percentage” or the “Name Ratio,” but “Name Number” is easier to remember.

This paper describes how I developed the concept, how it applies to one profession -- geology -- and how you can calculate the Name Number for any particular profession.

(Image: University of Birmingham)

A Warm-Up: Names Without Number
To prepare for the rigors of collecting names, I read scientific literature, attended meetings, perused magazines and newspapers, and talked to people at cocktail parties. In so doing, I randomly discovered many scientists whose names closely matched their fields of study.

Here are some of the fields that yielded results.

Forest sciences: Jerry Forest Franklin (University of Washington forest ecologist); Forrest Hall (retired, US Forest Service); Robert D. Forrest (Vancouver forestry-sciences journalist); Simon Grove (Rainforest Cooperative Research Center, James Cook University).

Ornithology: Vernon Byrd (U.S. Dept. of Fish & Wildlife); Scott Hatch (U.S. Geological Survey Seabird Monitoring Project); John Wingfield (University of Washington);Jason Duxbury (University of Alberta).

Meteorology, climate: Kathleen Weathers, acid-rain specialist, Institute for Ecological Studies, Millbrook, N.Y.; John W. Weatherly, climate-change researcher, U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.

Oceanography/hydrology: Ken Drinkwater (Bedford Institute of Oceanography); glacial hydrologist Andrew Fountain (Portland State University); ocean-current specialist Eddy Carmack (Canadian Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans); and most particularly, Brian F. Atwater of the University of Washington, author of the recent paper “The 1700 Cascadia Tsunami Initiated a Fatal Shipwreck in Japan”; and Kathleen Flood, USA Engineer Research and Development Center, coauthor of “Historical Development of Engineered Waterways in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, Iraq.”

I also discovered entomologist Wayne K. Gall of the Buffalo Museum of Science -- a gall is a scar that forms on a plant after an insect burrows in. And a sex therapist/researcher interviewed in 1989 for an article in the scientific journal Mademoiselle: Wendy T. Fullilove.

(Image: Smithsonian Institution)

The Name Number for Geologists
Here is how I calculated the Name Number for the field of geology.

The procedure is simple. I examined the abstracts of all the papers presented at the 2003 meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA).

All together, there were 8,639 authorial surnames, including names that appeared more than once. Analysis revealed the following -- names that provided full, or very close, matches to the profession of geology:

Algeo--1 Bonal--1 Brick--1
Berg (mountain), Bergantz, Bergbauer, Berger, Bergeron, Berglund, Bergstrom: 12 Brook, Brooks, Brookfield, Brookshire--9
Claypool or Clayton--2
Gemery or Gemmell--2
Goldberg, Goldfarb, Goldhaber, Goldsmith or Goldstein--9
Coale, Cole, Coleman or Coles--13
Diamond--1 Dugmore --1 Flint--2 Gaswirth--1
Koppers -- 2
Sanders, Sanderson, Sandru, Sandstrom, Sandvol or Sandy--8 Silver--1
Hill or Hiller--11 Mason--3 Rockhold--2
Horst --1 Jade --1 MacQuarrie or McQuarrie--3 Rockwell--1
Stein (stone), Steinberg (probably should count twice), Steiner, Steinle, Steinmetz--8
Stone or Stoner--9. (This sample included, significantly, George T. Stone of Milwaukee Area Technical College, who pointed out that his first name is abbreviated Geo. He volunteered that this combination made his choice of profession a “no-brainer.”)
Till--1 Tipple--1 Valley--4 Van Dijk, van Bergen--2

117of the 8639 authors appear to have names that qualify. To calculate the Name Number, I simply divide the geology- related names by the total number of names to come up with a percentage -- the Name Number.

Thus, the Name Number for the field of geology is .0135432. (Future research could show that this figure subject to upward revision, as there could be many non-English names that -- carry geologic meanings of which I am not aware.)

(Image: Center for Conservation Biology)

The Triumph of Geology
Geology now leads all other branches of science -- it is the very first branch of science for which we have calculated the Name Number. It remains to be seen whether other specialties will rise to challenge its supremacy.

It is still too early to tell whether a certain proportion of geologists might be influenced to take up their profession simply because of the names they carry. To investigate this hypothesis, we would have to control for names among geologists that could be geologic, but seem to point to other professions. For instance, there were 14 people by the name of “Fisher,” whose talks bore no apparent relation to fish, or even fossilized fish. There were 5 by the name of “Fox,” whose talks had nothing to do with foxes, or fossil foxes. One presenter was named Amoroso and another Breeding, but neither spoke of loves past nor present. An astounding 53 bore the name “Johnson,” but none discussed the male member in either its fossil or nonfossil form. And I certainly have no idea what Reinhardt A. Fuck (Departamento de Geologia Geral y Aplicada, Universidade de Brasilia), presenter of “Search for Rodinia in South America: Geological Records and Problems’ was talking about, but I suspect it was not related to his name. Further analysis of the names of geologists could be called for.

(Image: University of North Carolina)

The late Alexander Kohn, who co-founded this magazine, was a connoisseur of this kind of name. One of his best essays on the subject is called “Peculiar Relationships Between Authors and the Subject of Their Studies.” A copy is on the Improbable Research web site.

New Scientist magazine frequently publishes small collections of nominatively determined names, in their “Feedback” column, which is edited by the aforementioned John Hoyland.


This article is republished with permission from the March-April 2005 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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Interesting, but this is a repeat of history. Ages ago it was common for an individual's surname to relate to his profession. Whether this was by hereditary casting where the son followed in his fathers profession or as a way to assign surnames to those that didn't have them, I don't know. I wasn't there. But, the real question is: Which came first - the surname, or the profession, within the family lines?

And, like any inherited feature, such things as professional choice can skip generations, and be merged through marriage with other families who would, somewhat naturally, share similar professions within the family's social circle resulting in strengthening of the surname-profession link.

In reality, though, such connections are more likely in caste states and less so in places where a child is free to choose their own profession. Still, a fair amount of coincidence and marketing would come into play here also. Consider whether poop was called crap before Thomas Crapper popularized the common toilet and you get an idea of how history can move backwards instead of forwards.

Also, when a town had a predominant industry, and a large localized family, it would not be unheard of to find that the industry had a direct relation to the family that ran it. Again, which came first, the family, or the industry?

All in all, I'd say that the theory of this research is somewhat improbable in its application. But my name-number doesn't indicate that I'm a scientist so what do I know?
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