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Scientists have a puckish sense of humour.

I encountered a substance called volleyballene. It’s a hollow sphere of 60 carbon atoms and 20 atoms of scandium. This produces a shape made up of pentagons and octagons that looks a bit like an ultra-miniature volleyball. At the moment, it exists only as a computer design:

Volleyballene is a molecule waiting to be synthesized. So if you’re a chemist with a little time on your hands, let us know when you’ve made one of these things.

MIT Technology Review, 18 Feb. 2015.

It’s one of a large group of hollow carbon molecules, variously shaped like eggs, tubes, rugby balls or spheres. The first one discovered was a sixty-carbon sphere which reminded its discoverers at Rice University in Texas of the geodesic dome, which had been invented by the American engineer and architect R Buckminster Fuller (a notable example was exhibited at Expo ’67 in Montreal). They named the substance buckminsterfullerene.

Its surface shape, a mixture of hexagons and pentagons, reminded people of a football (soccer ball) and so some wits took to calling it soccerballene and footballene. Others, tiring of writing the 20-letter name, shortened it to buckyball. When other shapes and sizes were discovered, they were all at first called buckyballs, though the more formal collective term for them is fullerenes, another shortening.

Fullerenes have become a hot topic in chemistry and so many types have been created that they make up what’s been called a fullerene zoo. Hollow cylindrical ones can be buckytubes, though more often nanotubes. Spheres with fewer atoms than buckminsterfullerene have been called buckybabies, and ones with layers within layers were named bucky onions, Russian eggs or buckskis. Buckyballs bewhiskered with atoms of other elements such as hydrogen are fuzzyballs. Another sort, containing a caged osmium atom (an example of a metallofullerene) is a bunnyball, because it has a couple of add-on bits that fancifully look like rabbit’s ears.

Reader Ed Matthews tracked down a much older word of similarly humorous construction which isn’t a fullerene and indeed isn’t from science but from science fiction:

That, obviously, had been the multiple-benzene-ring gas Hawkesite; it had been very popular during the days of the warring stellar “empires,” when it had been called “polybathroomfloorene” for no discoverable reason.

Earthman, Come Home, by James Blish, 1955.

Volleyballene is the most recent addition to the zoo. It’s unlikely to be the last.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 7 March 2015.