On Nominal

Yesterday’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope reminded me of something I blogged about many years ago. At regular intervals during the launch we heard staff at Mission Control in Kourou saying that everything was “nominal”. As always when wondering about the meaning of words, I searched in the One True Chambers Dictionary, where I found:

nominal, adj relating to or of the nature of a name or noun; of names; by name; only in name; so-called, but not in reality; inconsiderable, small, minor, in comparison with the real value, hardly more than a matter of form…

So was the so-called launch of JWST only in name, but not in reality? Was it faked? Is the telescope real?

That reminds me that years and years ago I had an idea for a crime novel with a plot that revolves around the murder of a prominent cosmologist just as some important scientific discovery is about to be announced. Suspicion gathers that the whole thing is an enormous hoax and the discovery bogus. But the experiment is shrouded in secrecy, and was so expensive that it can’t easily be repeated, so  who can tell, and how?

I wouldn’t put it past some conspiracy theorist to argue that the data from JWST (assuming there is some) is manufactured.

It’s very difficult to know for sure whether any scientific discoveries are genuine or not, even if the data and analysis procedures are made public. There’s always the possibility that everything might have been fabricated or simulated, but in most cases the experiment can be repeated at a later date and the fraud eventually exposed, such as in the Schön Scandal.  In Big Science, this may not be practicable. However, Big Science requires big teams of people and the chances are someone would blow the whistle, or try to…

Anyway, I know that there are people out there who take everything I write on this blog absurdly literally so I’ll spell it out that I am in no way suggesting that the James Webb Space Telescope is a fraud. Or predicting that there’ll be a murder just before the first observations are released. Any similarity purely coincidental and all that. And I’ve never had time to write the book anyway – perhaps a publisher might read this and offer me an advance as an incentive?

Moreover, going back to the Chambers Dictionary, I note the final definition given there and omitted above i

…according to plan (space flight)

So that’s that. Nothing sinister. I’m not sure how “nominal” acquired that meaning, mind you, but that’s another story…

6 Responses to “On Nominal”

  1. Some interesting discussion of this at: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/184876/how-did-nominal-come-to-mean-within-acceptable-tolerances. Short version: mass-produced parts came to be described as “nominal” if they were pretty much as named/described by their manufacturers.

  2. I remember the first time I encountered this word, in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Red-Headed League.” A man is offered a substantial salary to perform work that is “purely nominal”. I had no idea what it meant at the time.

    (Spoiler: The offer does not go as well as the man expected.)

  3. Because the French budget dominates European spending there is much terminology in the space domain which is derived from what the French think is English, even if Brits don’t use the constructions -so there are “ergol budgets” for example. I leave it as a Christmas puzzle to work out what is meant by an “RSJ” – and it’s not a Rolled Steel Joist.

  4. Wow, you are many steps ahead of me.
    I just thought that the benefit of JWST will be definitely marginal, see https://twitter.com/Tienzen/status/1474799304787202048

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    There is a mediaeval school of philosophy called nominalism. William of Ockham was a leading nominalist, and the name “Ockham’s Razor” for his logical principle of parsimony, coined by the 19th century scholar William S. Hamilton, may have been taken from the phrase “rasoir des nominaux” used obscurely by the French scholar Condillac a century earlier.

  6. Regarding your comment about your idea for a crime novel, many years ago I read The Delta Star by Joseph Wambaugh, which has the Nobel Prize in Chemistry as one of the plot elements. Quite good fun if memory serves…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: