Naming in molecular biology: get comfortable with meaninglessness !

I noticed an interesting post over on BoingBoing: “Comfort with meaninglessness the key to good programmers“. It outlines some research by Dehnadi and Bornat on attributes that can predict aptitude in computer programming. They conclude that a “deep comfort with meaninglessness” is an important predictor of programming aptitude.

I think comfort with meaninglessness is an important skill in studying biology (and probably other sciences too). Many times, during the description of a system, various acronyms are thrown about as labels for entities (or ‘actors’) in that system. An important skill of the scientist is being able to follow how all the actors in the system relate to each other, without necessarily knowing anything about the specific properties of those actors. There are lots of protein and gene names which often bear very little meaning relative to the biological entity that they label, and fixating on what ‘the name’ means simply distracts from the true nature of the entity.

Continue reading