A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

Astrophysically acronymical


HETDEX is gonna get a VIRUS and that's not something you want to hear over lunch. But with an expert at the table to calm our potentially troubled stomachs, a group of seven science writers at the Annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing learned a lot about a project to explore the slightly less stomach turning topic of dark energy.

Karl Gebhardt of the University of Texas at Austin brought us up to speed on the development of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment, or HETDEX. It's an interesting project that is looking to understand dark energy in a slightly different way to how the majority of dark energy telescopes approach the problem. It differs because it looks further back in time, by observing fainter astronomical objects, further away from us. It's a challenging experiment, because dark energy plays its most significant role in the universe's evolution relatively recently, but looking further back in time allow HETDEX to answer a few different kinds of questions about dark energy.

And the VIRUS? Well, that's the Visible Integral-field Replicable Unit Spectrograph. It consists of over 100 identical small units that each captures light in an array of optical fibers. By building the detector as a set of repeating units, the researchers can save considerable money (up to 75% by the scientists' estimates) and still get the performance they need. The savings come because a single unit can be prototyped, tested, and fully developed, and then economies of scale mean that unit can be replicated relatively cheaply. As Karl said at the lunch, after a certain number are produced, the rest come essentially free.

One of the lunchers was Robert Irion, director of the science writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and past long-time journalist for Science magazine. Rob was having fun with the often-extreme acronyms that astronomers create for their projects with some light-hearted teasing about HETDEX's VIRUS, and proposed that what we really need was GROG. Yes, you already knew that was a General Relativistic Overturn of Gravity, didn't you?

But to illuminate his point about "astronyms", Rob later sent the lunch attendees a piece he had written for Science about five years ago but which never quite, he observed, saw the light of publication, due to a lack of space. (Yep, I'm trying to see how many subtle puns on optical astronomy I can slip into one sentence.)

So read the text below and if you feel like it is tinged just slightly red, that's because it's coming from the past...

Reporters at the recent American Astronomical Society meeting in Atlanta needed SMARTS to interpret the witty acronyms invented by astronomers for their pet projects. A FIRST look at the abstract volume turned up some DIRT and some real GEMS, so one writer went on a QUEST for the best--or worst--creations.

The DEEP search exposed some clever IDEAS, from trees (ASPENS) to desert (MOJAVE), and from ocean (SCUBA) to movie EPICs (SAURON). Some scientists couldn't quite spell (KASCADE), making one wonder whether they were on LSD. (At the very least, they were all WET.)

The ARCADE-like poster room was a veritable hall of BEASTs. One could GLIMPSE CANGAROOs, EGRETs, FLAMINGOS, GNATs, and even OGLE a fine BASS. A few astronomers, burdened by strained acronyms, stood at their posters with MACHO GLAREs. Others smiled to some internal MUSYC, confident in the DESTINY of their proposals.

When it came down to the WIRE, the writer blew a FUSE trying to pick the one acronym that really SINGS. For a COMPLETE list, SEGUE to this web page*. If that's too much to ask, don't shoot the MESSENGER.

* Editor's note: This link doesn't exist as the piece was never published, but it would have linked to the text below.

SMARTS: Small and Moderate Aperture Research Telescope System

FIRST: Faint Images of the Radio Sky at Twenty centimeters

DIRT: Dust InfraRed Toolbox

GEMS: Galaxy Evolution from Morphology and Spectral energy distributions

QUEST: QUasar Equatorial Survey Team

DEEP: Deep Extragalactic Evolutionary Probe

IDEAS: Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy and Space science

ASPENS: Astrometric Search for Planets Encircling Nearby Stars

MOJAVE: Monitoring Of Jets in AGN with VLBA Experiments

SCUBA: Submillimeter Common User Bolometer Array

EPIC: European Photon Imaging Cameras

SAURON: Spectroscopic Areal Unit for Research on Optical Nebulae

KASCADE: KArlsruhe Shower Core and Array DEtector

LSD: Lenses Structure and Dynamics

WET: Whole Earth Telescope

ARCADE: Absolute Radiometer for Cosmic And Diffuse Emission

BEAST: Background Emission Anisotropy Scanning Telescope

GLIMPSE: Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire

CANGAROO: Collaboration of Australia and Nippon for a GAmma Ray Observatory in the Outback

EGRET: Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope

FLAMINGOS: FLoridA Multi-object Imaging Near-infrared Grism Observational Spectrometer

GNAT: Global Network of Astronomical Telescopes

OGLE: Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment

BASS: Broadband Array Spectrograph System

MACHO: MAssive Compact Halo Object

GLARE: Gemini Lyman-Alpha at Reionization Era

MUSYC: MUltiwavelength Survey by Yale and Chile

DESTINY: Dark Energy Space Telescope (hey, what about INY?)

WIRE: Wide-field InfraRed Explorer

FUSE: Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer

SINGS: SIRTF (now Spitzer) Infrared Nearby Galaxies Survey

COMPLETE: COordinated Molecular Probe Line Extinction Thermal Emission survey

SEGUE: Sloan Extension for Galactic Underpinnings and Evolution

MESSENGER: MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging mission

Of course, I wouldn't want to give the astronomers and astrophysicists too hard a time over their naming. Particle physicists are just as bad. Travel nearly five years back in time with symmetry magazine to read a feature about the woeful naming of projects in particle physics.

Thanks to Rob Irion for sharing this piece with us.

Latest news articles

Fermilab’s ICEBERG particle detector is effectively a miniature version of component that tracks neutrinos in the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment.


Renormalization has become perhaps the single most important advance in theoretical physics in 50 years.

Black Hills Pioneer

The APS Historic Sites Initiative works to increase public awareness of noteworthy physics-related events and discoveries.


Scientists capture largest digital photo ever taken in a single shot

Sensors for the world’s largest digital camera have snapped their first 3200-megapixel images at SLAC.