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Tom Siegfried

Top 10 scientific supers

Supernova remnant SN 1572, which sits about 9,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cassiopeia, was first discovered by Tycho Brahe and hinted to astronomers that stars weren’t as static as originally thought.

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Scientists typically coin new terms by cobbling prefixes or suffixes on to old ones; for dramatizing a new label, the prefix of choice is usually "super-." Supersymmetry is just one of many such supercoinages that have appeared over the last century or so.

10. Supersonic: Ernst Mach, 1887
Apparently, supersonic was originally used to denote sound at frequencies too high for human ears to hear, but today that term is ultrasonic. So that complicates the history of the word. But the seminal scientific study of projectiles traveling faster than the speed of sound in a given medium — today’s definition of supersonic — came from Mach and a collaborator named Peter Salcher. Hence the term “Mach number,” proposed in 1929 to describe, for example, the ratio of a fast airplane’s speed to the speed of sound in air.

9. Superego: Sigmund Freud, early 20th century
Seriously? Well, I needed 10. Originally superego referred to something like a conscience, the part of you that controlled your monsters from the id, which suggests that Walter Pidgeon was deficient in this area. Nowadays superego is more commonly used to describe LeBron James.

8. Supersymmetry: Evgeny Likhtman and Yuri Golfand, c. 1970; Julius Wess and Bruno Zumino, 1973
It’s a complicated history, but the first ideas of a new symmetry relating matter to force came from Likhtman and Golfand in the Soviet Union. Wess and Zumino’s paper got a lot more attention, though. The first actual use of the term supersymmetry was probably in a 1974 paper by Abdus Salam and John Strathdee.

7. Superstrings: Gabriele Veneziano, 1968; Yoichiro Nambu, 1969; Leonard Susskind, 1969; Holger Nielsen, 1970; Pierre Ramond, André Neveu, John Schwarz, 1971. And many others.
I really didn’t want to leave anybody out, but the list could go on and on. The idea (now) is that elementary particles are tiny snippets of vibrating string, with different particles corresponding to different vibration modes (the way different frequencies of sound correspond to different musical notes). Originally it was just “string” theory, but Ramond, Neveu and Schwarz linked it to supersymmetry, putting the super into strings. Enthusiasm exploded for superstrings in the 1980s with the realization that it could unify quantum mechanics with gravity, but despite many advances, a full-fledged theory that is testable with current technologies has remained elusive.

6. Superposition: Erwin Schrödinger, 1935
This one has many scientific meanings, but we’re talking about quantum superposition here. It refers to the weird quantum situation where a particle can simultaneously be in two different states, like two places at once, or be spinning around an axis pointing in multiple directions. The quantum usage originated in the late 1920s in analogy to the superposition principle for classical waves, but I’m giving this prize to Schrodinger for his famous illustration of the concept with a cat in a superposition of dead-and-alive.

5. Supercontinent: Alfred Wegener 1912-1915
It’s really hard to find out who first used the term supercontinent, and when, but Alfred Wegener, a German astronomer turned meteorologist, established the idea. Others had suggested a primordial agglomeration of all the Earth’s continents but did not accumulate the evidence and work out the details the way Wegener did. “Supercontinent” is not rigorously defined (it does not necessarily require all the planet’s continents to be connected). Wegener conceived it as one huge land mass, composed of all Earth’s current continents, that he referred to as the “ur-kontinent.” In 1922 he called it die Pangäa in German, which translates into “Pangaea.” (By the way, although many experts didn’t believe him at the time, it turned out that Wegener was right.)

4. Superconductivity: Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, 1911
Kamerlingh Onnes found that electrical resistance disappeared in mercury cooled to near absolute zero. Soon he found that many other metals, such as lead and tin, also lost electrical resistance at such low temperatures. Kamerlingh Onnes apparently called the phenomena “supraconductivity,” but that didn’t make any sense so almost everybody else called it superconductivity.

3. Superfluidity:  Willem Keeson et al, 1930s; Pyotr Kapitza, 1938
Keeson and collaborators observed hints of unusual fluidity, including an ability to move through tiny constrictions, in liquid helium cooled below 2.17 kelvins. Further work by several others, including the Canadians James Frank Allen and Austin Donald Misener, showed that this exceptional frictionless flow could not be explained by ordinary (nonquantum) physics. Kapitza did experiments and reported his analysis in a short paper published in Nature, in which he coined the term “superfluid” to describe the supercold helium. (A similar paper on the flow of supercold helium, by Allen and Misener, appeared in the same issue of Nature.)

2. Supercomputer: Control Data Corp., 1964 (maybe)
The story in the geekosphere is that the first supercomputer was the CDC 6600, produced in 1964 by the Control Data Corp. It was called “super” because it was so much faster than other computers were back then.

 But wait. Top Secret documents from the NSA (yes, that NSA) claim that President Eisenhower approved a project to develop “super-fast computers” in the 1950s. NSA claims that “no machine resulted directly from” that project (Hah!).

 But perhaps that’s right, because NSA bought a CDC 6600 and then bought Seymour Cray’s first supercomputer in 1976. Maybe whoever from NSA is reading this will send in a clarification. But I will absolutely not admit who leaked the documents to me. Unless tortured. (It was Google.)

1. Supernovas: Tycho Brahe, 1572; Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky 1931

When a star too dim to see suddenly gets brighter, it appears as a new star in the sky, and so Tycho Brahe’s report on the supernova of 1572 called it a stella nova (new star). That was a big deal because in those days the established dogma was the stars were eternal and unchanging. In the 1920s astronomers realized that while many stars did undergo brightening events, a rare few brightened by many orders of magnitude more than the others. Edwin Hubble called them “exceptional novae” but that didn’t catch on. Baade and Zwicky began using the term supernova at Caltech in 1931 and published a paper using it in 1934.

(There’s probably more to this story, though, since Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate gives the year of supernova’s first use as 1926.)

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