This Side of the Pond – Dec. 14

By Sarah Pridgeon

If there’s one thing scientists must pine for, it’s the attention of the general public. Partly because scientific data can be dry and confusing and partly because there are so many videos of cats and people falling over hedges to get through, we’re simply not as engaged in the advancement of human knowledge as we could be.

This dream of rapt attention was unexpectedly filled for one group of scientists last year – and the legacy of that moment has spread farther than anyone expected.

The tale begins with a boat. Not just any boat, but a state-of-the-art polar research ship belonging to the Natural Environment Research Council that has apparently made the UK’s floating research fleet the most advanced in the world.

Naturally, the council wanted everybody else to be as excited by its new toy as they were, and so they launched a competition for the public to name the vessel. At first, things went swimmingly – the suggestions included RRS Henry Worsley, after the Arctic explorer, and RRS David Attenborough, after the BBC Earth naturalist with dulciest of dulcet tones.

But then someone suggested Boaty McBoatface, and that was the beginning of the end. The candidates began rolling in, including Boatimus Prime, Big Metal Floating Thingy-Thing and Clifford the Big Red Boat.

But it was Boaty McBoatface that captured the imagination of a nation. A research vessel that would likely have been launched without anyone really noticing was suddenly all over the internet – and Boaty McBoatface ended up with 124,109 votes.

Sadly, the council made the decision not to lower the tone of the research by using the public’s choice and named the boat after Attenborough instead. They did make a concession by giving the name to one a trio of submarines on the boat (which, pleasingly, turned out to be yellow) and you can find plenty of details on their specifications. Not so much about the RRS David Attenborough, because human beings abhor a spoilsport.

Nor did the public care that the name wasn’t officially attached to the vessel itself. You can find all sorts of Boaty McBoatface memorabilia if you feel so inclined, such as the “Boaty McBoatface to the rescue” range by American Apparel and various mugs and phone cases.

Spotting an advertising opportunity like no other, organizations around the world launched their own naming contests. There is now a racehorse in Australia named Horsey McHorseface and a ferry in Sydney called Ferry McFerryface, train routes in England and Sweden called Trainy McTrainface and a giant Japanese spider crab by the name of Cuddlebug McNope.

But far and away my favorite example of bandwagoning turned up in Doncaster a couple of weeks ago. The city council announced it had purchased two new winter service vehicles to throw down grit on the roads in the event of snow, appropriately known in the UK as gritters, and requested that the public help with the naming process. Its only stipulations were that the suggestions needed to be family friendly and that Gritty McGritface would be highly unoriginal.

It probably bears mentioning that the council already had a snow fleet; the five vehicles in service are named Brad Grit, Gritney Spears, The Subzero Hero, Mr. Plow and Usain Salt. There is clearly no shortage of humor at Doncaster City Hall.

The suggestions poured in, and not just from Doncaster locals. Even U.S. singer Curtis Stigers got involved, proposing Grit Balls of Fire.

The list was slowly whittled down, with Lionel Gritchie, Rule Gritannia, Gritney Houston and True Grit losing out early on. The final shortlist also included Spready Mercury and Basil Salty, either of which I’d have been fine with.

But I do feel that the right names for the job were selected in the end. After a nail-biting contest, more than 25,000 people voted in the finals and came up with the names that will be proudly attached to the two machines: Davie Plowie and Gritsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Anti-Slip Machiney.

Meanwhile, despite their failure to respect the genius of the internet hive mind, the scientists who came up with this naming malarkey in the first place do appear to have got what they were looking for, though not quite as they expected. Boaty McBoatface, the unmanned submersible that is decidedly not a boat, made the news earlier this year after returning from its first adventure.

We know that Boaty went on a seven-week mission and that it captured unprecedented data on water flow in the Orkney Passage, an area of ocean 4000 meters deep. We know that this kind of data couldn’t be collected before now because the submarine can actually move underwater – previous missions have only been able to capture fixed points of the underwater landscape.

We know all this because Boaty McBoatface belongs to all of us, thanks to the love and creativity that went into its name. I suppose the lesson to be learned here is that there’s something to be said for inviting the public to take part in your projects after all.