"What’s in a rose? That which we call a name": Semiotics in Science

“What’s the use of their having names,” the Gnat said, “if they won’t answer to them?”
“No use to them,” said Alice; “but it’s useful to the people that name them, I suppose. If not, why do they have names at all?”
“I can’t say,” the Gnat replied.
-Lewis Carroll 
Through the Looking-Glass 

Did you know that quarks and gluons have an assigned “color” (red, green, blue), even though those particles don’t actually appear as those colors to our eyes? Physicists chose red, green, and blue as colors to describe them despite the fact that their emitted wavelength of light does not lie in the visible spectrum. Rather, the names were, more or less, arbitrary and for the sake of pleasure. But assigning a name to something in science has a very different meaning depending on which discipline we choose to speak of. The naming conventions and rationale behind choosing specific names for things in biology is quite different from the way physicists assign names to things. When the mathematicians and alchemists of the Islamic Golden Age and Roman Empire wanted to construct a expression with a single degree of freedom that could be solved for, we chose the mathematical variable “x” because it was the closest sound we had to the Arabic word (شيء) “shay,” which means “thing.” It was also chosen by European mathematicians like Descartes due to the significance of “x” in signifying things that are “unknown” or “hidden” (ie., X-rays, the Latin prefix xeno-). What a beautiful way to express, quite literally, any “thing.” But, more fundamental to our understanding of the universe than the actual names we give to things, we can explore how we give meaning to certain things. Rather than the study of meaning itself (semantics), an inquiry of naming in science may align more with how meaning is created (semiotics).

If our duty as scientists is to make discoveries into the unknown, it is implicitly our duty to assign names to things. Theories, proofs, equations, species, molecules, software, and anything that has a name in science has a bit of history and human in it. I feel as though, as a researcher in the biological sciences, we spend much more time talking about names than a researcher in which, a field in which names are, more or less, chosen arbitrarily. After all, Eco chose the title for his novel “The Name of the Rose” partly because “the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left.” This is not to suggest that physicists may not show creativity and subjectivity in their roles, as Murray Gell-Mann’s discovery of the “quark” arrived from a verse from Finnigan’s Wake. Maybe the arbitrariness of naming in physics stems from a physicists desire for simplicity and reductionism and a modern “form from function” ideology that pays no attention to semantics. Ironically, it also means that the search for aesthetic beauty and elegance of mathematics and physics causes us to overlook the allure and blessings of meaning in names. This silliness of naming in physics may be reflected in how the common names of phenomena and theory are often misleading. The “God Particle” was originally meant to be the “Goddamn particle”, but the latter’s lack of appropriateness and the former’s similarities of its discovery to the searching for the origins of the universe caused the change in its name. Following this, we found the general public thoroughly confused about the significance of the discovery of the Higgs Boson. And the name”Big Bang” was merely chosen “To create a picture in the mind of the listener,” (Mitton. Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science. Cambridge University Press), not that the Big Bang model occurred long ago and ceased to have an affect on what the universe of today.

Three quarks for Muster Mark! Sure he has not got much of a bark And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

While Aristotle was the first to classify all living things, our modern system of biological taxonomy is mostly derived from Carl Linnaeus’ work on classifying organisms. Unlike in physics, naming in biology is a big deal. Quite recently, we’ve even witnessed the birth of “bioinformatics” given to the intersection of computer science, statistics, and biology, while the computational fields of physics and chemistry were never, and never will be called “physinformatics” or “chemoinformatics.” When Darwin spoke “On the Origin of Species,” certainly he was speaking about distinct species of animals and plants he witnessed on the H.M.S. Beagle, but did we ever really have a good definition of what a “species” is? The Nomenclature codes on assigning names to organisms has undergone numerous revisions since the days of Aristotle. “In practical terms, the problem comes down to the need to impose a discrete classification (taxonomy) upon an essentially continuous phenomenon; i.e. biodiversity” (Chambers). This is incredibly important for biologists to communicate the new, unknown species and phenomena of the living world to one another. Given the daunting nature of this problem, one might be inclined to follow the position of Robert J. O’Hara, and write the problem of what reason to choose one thing as a “species” over another reason as irrelevant and unimportant. As Anna Graybeal summarizes O’Hara’s position, that “we cannot know which organisms are best grouped as species because we do not know what will happen in the future.” O’Hara describes the naming systems of modern biology folllowing from “cartographic generalizations”, as in, we give names to the geographical importance of biological phenomena. We use advanced and ambitious technology to map the evolutionary trees of all living things the same way we might construct a map of the physical world. We could easily overlook the problems of classification by recognizing that the names given to “species” and individuals on a small level depend upon future predictions of those evolutionary “states”, and, therefore, the meaning of “species” is irrelevant. Graybeal, on the other hand, herself favors an approach to what a “species” is that would accommodate the small-scale processes of biological reproduction that give rise to relationships and lineages of phylogenetics. But, instead of trying to define “species”, Graybeal hopes to recognize the types of descent and interbreeding that give rise to the diversity of life. In addition, through our newfangled “bioinformatics”, we could explore how to add taxa or branches to the difficult problems of biology when appropriate and an examination of the most optimal ways tell us how to do so.

Will science give us the answers to the best ways to name things? And, if we let the fate of the universe decide how we assign names to scientific phenomena, then that might give science the “objective” truth that it needs to prosper. Through our discoveries in physics, biology, and any field in-between, we can look at what our names of the universe say about us. 

Published by

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: