Field of Science

Polysemy and Polyphony: Listening to Messiah

Last spring I wrote a piece for Nature Chemistry on polysemy — the phenomenon where words take on quite different meanings in different contexts. The iconic chemistry example might be mole (the quantity versus the animal versus the verb1), but there's a long list.

So you might think that when I ran into a homograph2 on Twitter the other day, I'd be alert to the possibility. My first thought when the conversation between two chemists about the insights they find in Messiah showed up in my feed they were talking about the classic quantum mechanics text by French physicist Albert Messiah.  Actually, not.  Handel's Messiah was the text under discussion.  Polyphony crashes into polysemy.  And evidence I really am a science geek first and foremost.

The text is still in print, though Albert Messiah died in 2013 at aged 92.   I used Messiah's text when I took a year long course in quantum physics as a graduate student (from the physics department, have exhausted the chemistry offerings as an undergrad). We pronounced his name "mess-ee-uh" rather than "mess-eye-uh," making this technically a homograph (though not a capitonym3).  I wondered today how he might have pronounced his name, is it really a homograph, or did my professor simply choose to pronounce it this way to avoid sounding like an evangelical preacher when he assigned reading?  I dove into the interwebs to see if I could uncover any clues.  I discovered Messiah had been part of the French Resistance in World War II (joining at age 19, the age my youngest son is now), worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton with Niels Bohr and eventually returned to France to teach and write this text.

I also listened to a few minutes of a presentation Messiah gave in 2009 at Le Ecole Polytechnique.  It was oddly moving to hear the voice of someone whose written words I had spent so much time wrestling with almost forty years ago.  And at the end of the questions, I learned how he pronounced his name.

And, on the Sceptical Chymist, Reuben Hudson has a post responding to my column on a different kind of doubling-up in chemical language.

1.  Yes, mole is a verb, to mole a garden is to remove the moles.
2.  Homographs are words that have the same spelling, but different pronunciation (lead and lead).
3.  Capitonyms are homographs with different capitalization.  DEFT and deft.

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