What’s in a name of a hurricane?

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A few months ago, a study came out in PNAS that sparked a lot of media interest: Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes. The idea is not that the most severe hurricanes happen to have female names, but instead that more people die in hurricanes that have female names than in those with male names.

500px-Cyclone_Monica The study involved the analysis of death rates for over 60 years, which included 94 hurricanes. The archival data showed that for hurricanes that did little damage, the difference in the death tolls between masculine and feminine hurricanes was marginal. For hurricanes that had greater damage, however, the number of fatalities was substantially higher for female-named storms than for male-named ones. Further, they classified names for how masculine or feminine they are (referred to as the Masculinity-Femininity Index, or MFI). For example, a highly feminine name would be “Eloise,” (with a score of 8.944) while the female name “Charley” was rated as much less feminine (MFI = 2.889). The researchers found that even within feminine-named hurricanes, the more feminine a name was (the greater the MFI score), the higher the number of fatalities. Specifically, their data suggest that if a severe hurricane’s name is Eloise, it will kill 3 times as many people as if it’s named Charley. The explanation for the correlation between might seem intuitive and surprising at the same time: we have gender-based expectations that females are less aggressive. This unconscious bias seems to invoke a lower perceived risk for female hurricanes, so people take fewer precautions like evacuating. In light of these findings, The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the group who names the storms, might want to reevaluate its naming practices to avoid names that might encourage dismissal of a hurricane’s danger. In case they’re looking for inspiration, I have a few suggestions. What NOT to name a female hurricane:

  • Any flower name: this includes Daisy, Petunia, Lilly, and sadly, Rose
  • Pooh Bear (imagine the reactions if meteorologists announced that Hurricane Pooh Bear was headed for the coast)
  • Any name that has repeated syllables: can we expect people to take Coco or Fifi seriously?
  • Any name that’s shared with a Barbie doll, like Skipper, Stacie, and certainly Barbie
"Hurricane Barbie is on her way!"
Hurricane Barbie is on her way!

And some names that people might take more seriously:

  • Names that invoke big, tough women you wouldn’t want to mess with: Bertha, Agnes, or Madea
  • Gender-neutral names, like Alex, Casey, or Jamie
  • Non-human names: names like PX-750 or The Hulk might do the job
If you heard "Hurricane Madea is heading for the coast," what would you do?
Don’t mess with Hurricane Madea.
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Study says, suck it, Shakespeare

When I was growing up, a lot of people, upon learning that my name is Rose, found it clever to say “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I eventually realized that what Shakespeare was saying when he wrote the line is that names are irrelevant – a rose is a rose, regardless of what we call it. The Shakespeare-quoters were basically saying to me (unknowingly, I assume): your name is irrelevant, but hey, look! I know a line from Shakespeare.

Image: http://www.babyfloret.com/blog/Babies-Sense-Smell-Birth.html
Image: http://www.babyfloret.com/blog/Babies-Sense-Smell-Birth.html

A team of researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute conducted a study to investigate the role that an odor’s name has on people’s perception of the smell. They had people smell different odors that were accompanied by either a positive, negative, or neutral name. Positive names included countryside farm (is that really a positive-sounding smell?) and dried cloves. Negative ones included dry vomit and dentist’s office. Neutral ones were things like numbers. The names did not actually correspond to the smells, so any effects of name on perception didn’t result from the positive sounding smells actually smelling better. The researchers had participants rate the pleasantness, intensity, and arousal of the smells, and they also collected participants’ heart rates and skin conductances as they smelled the scents as measures of physiological arousal.

Perhaps not surprisingly, smells were rated to be significantly more pleasant and arousing when they were accompanied by positive names than when accompanied by neutral or negative names. Smells were rated as most intense when they had negative names, as opposed to neutral or positive ones. Taken together, the findings suggest that the names we use to describe odors (and many other aspects of our world) affect the way we perceive the actual smells. More specifically, we probably use the odor names to make a prediction, even if it’s a very general one, about what we’re about to experience. These predictions, in turn, seem to color our actual experience with the world, often in self-fulfilling manners.

I wonder if we could harness this knowledge of the effect of positive-sounding odor names to make certain jobs, like latrine odor judges, slightly more pleasant…

What’s in a name? Ununpentium

This week, big news in the chemistry community is that scientists have created a new element- element 115. Because I know nothing about element 115 except that it is neither natural nor practical, to me, the most interesting part of the story is its name.

All elements can be identified by a number – the number of protons in their nucleus – which is why this element can be referred to by the number 115. However, the element also has an official name, dictated by international chemistry naming rules – ununpentium. The “unun” comes from the Latin “unum,” (1) and the “pent” is Greek for 5, so when you squish the roots together, you get 1-1-5. After I found this out, I had to find out why the name is a combination of roots from two different languages… Wikipedia to the rescue: it couldn’t be named “ununquintium,” which would represent all Latin roots because that name is too similar to “ununquadium,” which was element 114’s temporary name before it was renamed “flerovium.” Serious thought went into this decision.

Man, that's a lot of electrons. Image: commons.wikimedia.org
Man, that’s a lot of electrons.
Image: commons.wikimedia.org

And the naming story doesn’t end there, for “ununpentium” is only a temporary name. The first group to create the element (scientists led by Russian S.N. Dmitriev) have the privilege of naming it. They actually first created it in 2004, but the element is just making headlines now because it was just recreated, so maybe they have the name figured out by now. Imagine having 9 years to agonize over the name of an element that will be printed on every periodic table from here on out? How does the man sleep at night with such responsibility on his shoulders?