Science Metaphors (cont.): Degeneracy


I was helping an astronomer write a sentence.  It was about disentangling the color a supernova has intrinsically, from the reddening in its color caused by cosmic dust.  He wrote he wanted to “break the degeneracy” between the colors.  Break the degeneracy.  I got so excited.  I’d always thought degenerates were people who didn’t, for instance, take baths.  But intrinsic color and extrinsic reddening could be degenerate? Oh my yes, he said, and so can stars and electrons.  So what’s science doing, not taking baths?

I wrote and asked another astronomer who prefers to be called astrophysicist A.T. Service — I think it’s his little joke – and whom I knew to be interested in language.  He wrote back.  He’d gone straight to the Oxford English Dictionary, found the original astronomical source for the use of “degenerate,” knew the source was in German, translated the German, and traced the astronomical use back to math.  In math, a cone can be described as degenerating into a pair of planes.  I could see that, a cone falling apart into planes.

Then astrophysicist A.T. Service went on to explain that electrons in atoms can be thought of as inhabiting certain orbits, with each orbit allowing only a certain number of electrons.  Electrons like to be free to jump up to higher, uninhabited orbits or fall to lower, uninhabited orbits.  But if the electrons are in matter that is dense enough – like a neutron star that blew up and then collapsed until it could collapse no further – then its electrons are all crammed into their orbits and can’t move.  That’s called electron degeneracy, and that star is made of degenerate matter.

After I thought about it for a while, I could see that too:  electrons have fallen from their free and uninhibited states and are trapped in a degenerate condition.  And then by extension I could understand breaking degeneracy:  separating the supernova’s intrinsic color and extrinsic reddening so they’re free of each other and known for themselves.

I wrote back to astrophysicist A.T. Service and explained, though I didn’t need to, that “degenerate” began as Latin, gens, and is therefore is generically akin to generation, regeneration, genus, gentleman, gentile, genital (ha) — as is the Germanic “kind,” as in your own kind, your people, your family.   Degenerating means falling away from your nature, from the higher, truer, nobler kind that you are and to which you belong. And so it was, I explained to him, with electron degeneracy and degenerate matter.

Astrophysicist A.T. Service had no truck with such romantic linguistics.  Once a word is defined in math or physics, he wrote sternly,  “it just means that,” and he quoted Lewis Carroll at me:  “’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’”  Maybe a little of a word’s original flavor leaks through, he added, but “words don’t keep the meaning of their origins.”

I so disagreed.  I wrote back that I swore to God that no one, scientist or not, can use the word “degenerate” entirely separate from its original meaning.  The uses of words are not separate from their origins, and with passion I urged astrophysicist A.T. Service to join me in leaving the degeneracy between them unbroken.  A word’s past is part of its present.  Maybe the rooms we now live in are all modern and shiny, but as Jessa wrote yesterday, they’re in a building as old as the hills.


Photos:  Tomas Castelazo; Thermos


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14 thoughts on “Science Metaphors (cont.): Degeneracy

  1. Rosie, let’s start a movement: degenerates with a lot of energy.

    David, given it’s you, quite a compliment.

  2. ‘Inhabiting’, ‘allowing’, electrons like to be free’ … anthropomorphic scientific language run rampant, Ann! But at least I understand it. I think (not know!) that scientists are allowed to define words in their own terms, for use amongst themselves (as long as they don’t drift a million miles away from their demotic meaning); they just need to be careful not to allow us to retrofit them to how we’d say ‘he’s a total degenerate!’ at a party.

  3. Well, thank you, A.T. You’re always coherent and never the least degenerate I guess now I have to look up “really” and “exist.”

  4. In Biology, degenerate has another meaning – the Genetic code is referred to as degenerate because there are several different codons for each amino acid. Maybe because in the pure idealized code there would be only one codon for each amino acid?

  5. I’d read that biology used “degenerate” too, but I was having so much trouble figuring out the physics and astronomy uses that I ignored biology. Either you’re right, Jeff, that the purest setup would be one codon: one amino acid; or the biologists are using “degenerate” the way astronomers are — that things are wrongly conflated and confused but their true heritage is to be be separate and individual. To be honest, I’m not sure how much I buy these various reasonings. I’m just sure, though, that the word’s origin is related to its meaning, even if I don’t quite see it. And ha! genetics! Degenerate genetics.

  6. Well, it can get silly in astronomy when we say “interacting degenerate white dwarfs” in a supernova conference and no one would chuckle. Or x_nought (written as an x with a 0 subscript) that sounds a lot like ex-snot. Not a nice picture at all.

    I agree that the history of a word that is adopted into the science jargon is important – and fun – to remember, but once it is used in science, it should have a very specific meaning, and that meaning should not evolve, otherwise the scientific discussion will degenerate (hah!) into a difference of opinion based on the misunderstanding of the definition and not the substance of the science.

    A while ago in the American Astronomical Society we were asked to instruct the journals to not use the phrase “galaxy harassment” for the phenomenon of multiple small galaxies interacting with a larger galaxy and causing it, say, to puff up. It was felt that this language was inappropriate given that one may immediately think about sexual harassment which is also not a pretty picture. Should we bar the use of this phrase? We might as well bar the phrase latus rectum then, which may offend those that think in pictures…

    Sometimes the phrase is a bit of a misrepresentation of the phenomenon, in that it selects words that give weight merely to one interpretation of many of what is seen, and this introduces a strong and hidden bias. A good example is “dark energy.” Well, most energy is dark. At least I have never seen gravitational energy glowing anywhere. But that phrase calls it dark, which is basically a meaningless adjective, and an energy, which it may not be. A simpler interpretation is that it is a pressure, which is the more fundamental concept of what we are seeing. “negative pressure” or “negative tension” would be better, but of course it would not pair well with its dark counterpart – dark energy.

    So we have a more poetic term – dark energy – to match dark matter, but at the expense of giving a more specific meaning to what what discovered. Dark energy implies vacuum fluctuations, and that requires gravity to be quantized. But the negative pressure may have nothing to do with quantum mechanics.

  7. I think you’re agreeing with A.T. Service. Everybody agrees with A.T. Service.

    I love your examples. I’m voting to retain the use of “galaxy harassment” because “harassment” is used in so many other contexts than the sexual, and the image of those little galaxies yapping and nipping at the big one is just wonderful. “Dark energy” is certainly sexier than “negative tension” but honest, it sounds a little like a George Lucas marketing slogan where “negative tension” — wooo! am I exploding? Yes!

    Why don’t people ask me before they go around naming things? I wouldn’t want to think up the name, just pass judgment on it. My judgment on interacting degenerate white dwarfs is, oh my heavens absolutely!

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