“Why does it have that name?”

I’ve asked in seminars, in lectures, in offices, and at group meetings. I’ve asked about physical conjectures, about theorems, and about mathematical properties.

“I don’t know.” Lecturers have shrugged. “It’s just a name.”

This spring, I asked about master equations. I thought of them as tools used in statistical mechanics, the study of vast numbers of particles. We can’t measure vast numbers of particles, so we can’t learn about stat-mech systems everything one might want to know. The magma beneath Santorini, for example, consists of about 10^{24} molecules. Good luck measuring every one.

Imagine, as another example, using a quantum computer to solve a problem. We load information by initializing the computer to a certain *state*: We orient the computer’s particles in certain directions. We run a program, then read out the output.

Suppose the computer sits on a tabletop, exposed to the air like leftover casserole no one wants to save for tomorrow. Air molecules bounce off the computer, becoming entangled with the hardware. This entanglement, or quantum correlation, alters the computer’s state, just as flies alter a casserole.^{*} To understand the computer’s output—which depends on the state, which depends on the air—we must have a description of the air. But we can’t measure all those air molecules, just as we can’t measure all the molecules in Santorini’s magma.

We can package our knowledge about the computer’s state into a mathematical object, called a *density operator*, labeled by ρ(t). A *quantum master equation *describes how ρ(t) changes. I had no idea, till this spring, why we call master equations “master equations.” Had someone named “John Master” invented them? Had the inspiration for the Russell Crowe movie *Master and Commander*? Or the Igor who lisps, “Yeth, mathter” in adaptations of *Frankenstein*?

Jenia Mozgunov, a fellow student and Preskillite, proposed an answer: Using master equations, we can calculate how averages of observable properties change. Imagine describing a laser, a cavity that spews out light. A master equation reveals how the average number of photons (particles of light) in the cavity changes. We want to predict these averages because experimentalists measure them. Because master equations spawn many predictions—many equations—they merit the label “master.”

Jenia’s hypothesis appealed to me, but I wanted certainty. I wanted Truth. I opened my laptop and navigated to Facebook.

“Does anyone know,” I wrote in my status, “why master equations are called ‘master equations’?”

Ian Durham, a physicist at St. Anselm College, cited Tom Moore’s *Six Ideas that Shaped Physics. *Most physics problems, Ian wrote, involve “some overarching principle.” Example principles include energy conservation and invariance under discrete translations (the system looks the same after you step in some direction). A master equation encapsulates this principle.

Ian’s explanation sounded sensible. But fewer people “liked” his reply on Facebook than “liked” a quip by a college friend: Master equations deserve their name because “[t]hey didn’t complete all the requirements for the doctorate.”

My advisor, John Preskill, dug through two to three books, one set of lecture notes, one German Wikipedia page, one to two articles, and Google Scholar. He concluded that Nordsieck, Lamb, and Uhlenbeck coined “master equation.” According to a 1940 paper of theirs,^{**} “When the probabilities of the elementary processes are known, one can write down a continuity equation for *W* [a set of probabilities], from which all other equations can be derived and which we will call therefore the ‘master’ equation.”

“Are you sure you were meant to be a physicist,” I asked John, “rather than a historian?”

“Procrastination is a powerful motivator,” he replied.

Lecturers have shrugged at questions about names. Then they’ve paused, pondered, and begun, “I guess because…” Theorems and identities derive their names from symmetries, proof techniques, geometric illustrations, and applications to problems I’d thought unrelated. A name taught me about uses for master equations. Names reveal physics I wouldn’t learn without asking about names. Names aren’t just names. They’re lamps and guides.

Pity about the origin of “master equation,” though. I wish an Igor had invented them.

^{*}Apologies if I’ve spoiled your appetite.

^{**}A. Nordsieck, W. E. Lamb, and G. E. Uhlenbeck, “On the theory of cosmic-ray showers I,” *Physica* **7**, 344-60 (1940), p. 353.