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How did Africa get its name?

These maps show surprising juxtapositions of ancient and modern toponyms of the Mother Continent.

Aerial view of Tunis from Hotel Africa

View across Tunis from Hotel Africa. Tunisia was once the central part of the Roman province of Africa, which gave its name to the entire continent.

Image: Hansueli Krapf, CC BY-SA 3.0
  • "Africa" is just one of the ancient names that competed to define the entire continent.
  • Geographical terms like Sudan, Maghreb, and Guinea have remarkably wide and changeable areas of application.
  • Newly independent African nations sometimes adopted names of former kingdoms – even faraway ones.

Vast and varied

The place-name pairs come in three categories: ancient, geographical and pre-colonial

The place-name pairs come in three categories: ancient, geographical and pre-colonial.

The names of continents are so well-established that we forget how obscure their origins really are. America is named after an Italian explorer, but not the one historically credited with its discovery. Europe and Asia may derive from the Akkadian words for "sunset" and "sunrise," but there are a host of other etymologies.

And, as these maps show, Africa is just one of the many names that have been used to describe this vast and varied land mass. The maps come in three categories – names of ancient, geographical and pre-colonial origin – and show the areas to which those names apply: dark, for the old version; and outlined, for the current one.

Ancient toponyms

Libya, Ethiopia and Africa are all local names that at one time applied to the entire continent

Libya, Ethiopia and Africa are all local names that at one time applied to the entire continent.

  • Libya is an ancient Greek toponym for the lands between the Nile and the Atlantic Ocean, and sometimes by extension for the entire continent. The name may derive from the local Libu tribe. Libya is also the name of the modern North African country between Tunisia and Egypt, formerly infamous for the violent surrealism of Colonel Ghadaffi's decades-long dictatorship and currently for its lawlessness and low-intensity civil war.
  • Ethiopia derives from the classical Greek for "burnt-face" (possibly in contrast to the lighter-skinned inhabitants of Libya). It first appears in Homer's Iliad and was used by the historian Herodotus to denote those areas of Africa south of the Sahara part of the "Ecumene" (i.e. the inhabitable world). But the Greek term originally applied to Nubia (a.k.a. Kush). Later, it was adopted by the kingdom of Axum, a distant precursor to present-day Ethiopia.
  • In 148 BCE, the Romans established the province of Africa Proconsularis, which covered most of present-day Tunisia and adjoining coastal bits of Algeria and Libya. The etymology is uncertain: "Africa" might mean "sunny," "birthplace," "cave-dwelling," or "rainwind;" refer to the ancient Afri tribe, the biblical port of Ophir, a grandson of Abraham named Epher, or a Himyarite king named Afrikin. Over time, perhaps because of its solid Roman pedigree, "Africa" became (European) cartographers' preferred term for the entire continent.

'Furthest sunset'

Three African countries \u2013 and one in Oceania \u2013 carry the name Guinea.

Three African countries – and one in Oceania – carry the name Guinea.

  • Bilad as-Sudaan is Arabic for "Land of Black People." Once referring to all of sub-Saharan Africa, the name latterly applied to the savannah belt running south of the Sahara from the Atlantic to the edge of the country that came in the British sphere of influence in 1899 as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Following a successful referendum, South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011. The other country outlined here is Mali, which until independence was known as French Soudan.
  • Guiné was the Portuguese geographical term for West Africa. Its zone of application covers two of the three African countries named after it: Guinea (the larger country in the west) and Equatorial Guinea (in the east). Guinea Bissau, the smaller neighbor of Guinea, falls just outside the ancient domain of Guiné. A fourth country, Papua New Guinea, just north of Australia, was named after the region by Spanish explorer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez. In 1545, he first used the term "New Guinea" because of the similarities in appearance between the natives of both regions.
  • Maghreb is Arabic for "sunset." In some definitions, the wider region of this name includes Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania. A narrower definition (the one current in France, for example) only encompasses Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The narrowest definition is Maghreb al-Aqsa, "the Furthest Sunset," i.e. Morocco.

No overlap

Some new African countries adopted the names of kingdoms with ancient pedigree, even if they were located somewhere else entirely.

Some new African countries adopted the names of kingdoms with ancient pedigree, even if they were located somewhere else entirely.

  • Mauretania was the portion of the Maghreb the Berber inhabitants of which were known to the Romans as Mauri. The local kingdoms became vassals of Rome and were later annexed. The current Islamic Republic of Mauritania derives its name from ancient Mauretania but shares no territory and little else with its nominal predecessor.
  • "Ghana" means "warrior king," a title conferred to the kings of the so-called Ghana Empire (it called itself "Wagadou"), which existed from around 700 to 1240 CE in an area covering parts of the modern states of Mauritania and Mali. There is no overlap with the modern country – the British colony of the Gold Coast adopted the name upon gaining independence in 1957.
  • Benin City, now in Nigeria, was the capital of the old kingdom of Benin. The modern kingdom of Benin, formerly the French colony of Dahomey, is located a few hundred miles to the west.

Image produced by reddit user u/PisseGuri82, reproduced with kind permission.

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Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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