What's in a Name?

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Photos of the Month - August 2019

Audrey Lengel, Photo Archivist

Have you ever wondered why we are named the “Emilio Segrè Visual Archives”? In 1992, our collection of visual materials was officially named in memory of nuclear physicist, avid photographer, and Nobel Laureate Emilio Segrè. His wife, Rosa Segrè was looking for a permanent home for Emilio’s photographs and contacted the American Institute of Physics, knowing about our Niels Bohr Library & Archives. One generous donation from Rosa later, and the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives was formed. You can view the original donation of images, our Segrè Collection, on our website!

The ways we name things in the field of physics often make reference to remarkable figures in science history. This month, we’re looking at the physicists whose names grace observatories, theoretical concepts, scholarships, and more.

Swiss physicist and mathematician Leonhard Euler has two numbers named after him: e (Euler’s number), an important irrational number that is the base of natural logarithms, and γ (the Euler-Mascheroni constant), a constant that is widely used in analytic number theory and calculus. Recent Breakthrough Prize winner Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell announced that she will put her $3 million award to work with the Institute of Physics to create the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund, which will support traditionally-underrepresented PhD students. A recent public vote decided that the ESA rover scheduled to travel to Mars in 2020 will be named after crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray images led to the discovery of DNA. Gerard O’Neill’s proposed space colony, the O’Neill Cylinder, first published about in 1974 in Physics Today, still continues to get press today. Astronaut Ron McNair has a plethora of things named after him, including a crater on the Moon and the building which once housed his hometown public library. As a child, a librarian called the police on him because he attempted to check out books from the segregated library. That building, now the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center, pays tribute to his life and accomplishments. Lastly, both the Chandrasekhar Limit and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory are named after Nobel Laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, whose work on black holes and the mass limit of white dwarf stars is now fundamental to astrophysics.

So, tell us: what is your favorite physics-related eponym?

Rosa and Emilio Segrè at Los Alamos in April 1983. Rosa Mines Segrè named the visual archives of the American Institute of Physics after her late husband, physicist and photographer Emilio Segrè, in 1992.

Credit line: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Segrè Collection

Portrait of Leonhard Euler, who Euler’s Number and Euler’s Law are named after, sitting at a desk with a quill and a book.

Credit line: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, namesake of the newly-created Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund, sits in her office at The Open University in Milton Keynes, UK.

Credit line: The Open University, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Formal portrait of Rosalind Franklin. In the past year, the public voted to name a 2020 Mars rover, which will search for past life on the planet, after her.

Credit line: The College Archives, King's College London, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Gerard O’Neill, whose space colony design bears his name, stands in front of a bookshelf.

Credit line: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Ron McNair, who has a crater on the moon and a museum about his life named after him, performing duties on the Space Shuttle Mission 41-B.

Credit line: NASA, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Ronald E. Mickens Collection

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, namesake of the Smithsonian Chandra X-Ray Observatory, with a book in front of a Taylor Couette apparatus at the University of Chicago.

Credit line: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection