Monthly Archives: June 2016

Light and the failure of metaphor

People, including scientists, use metaphor or analogy to explain the unknown, or the thing being researched. Scientists use metaphors based on things they understand and can explain, to help them get at the apparent reality of phenomena they can’t understand. Interestingly, one of the biggest failures of language, thus of metaphor, created a mudhole in which scientists flopped around for a long time. That metaphor was the description of light as a wave. Scientists had a grasp of how liquid waves worked; how larger waves carried more power than smaller waves, and so on. This understanding was applied to help them get at the nature of light.

The accepted ‘truth’, that light traveled in waves, was nothing more than a language construct extrapolated from something reasonably well understood and applied to something not very well understood. This became ‘reality,’ the concept within which all study of light was conducted. Mathematics, another language, proved that this concept was right. And yet, there was a problem. Experiments with the power of light, its colour and the size of the wave, showed that, contrary to the water wave metaphor, ultra-violet waves, which were small, had more power to displace electrons than red or yellow light waves, which were larger. Theoretical and applied science could not explain this. Language and mathematics failed at this juncture.

It took one man, Albert Einstein, thinking in different language, to give birth to modern physics. He found the wave metaphor insufficient and replaced it with another; that light consisted of, or behaved like, particles. From this new use of language and metaphor, quantum physics was born. Just as mathematics proved that scientists before Einstein were ‘right’ about light behaving like a wave, it took new mathematics to prove that Einstein was not a lunatic. Mathematics upheld Einstein’s new metaphor. Now, scientists use both metaphors; in essence, showing us through language that light is both wave and particle.

It is a long and complicated journey from there to the explorations of quantum physics and sub-atomic particles articulated by Neils Bohr and Shrödinger. That’s where I start to falter, and grope in a forest dimly lit. But I don’t feel too bad. I don’t have the metaphors down yet. And even Einstein had his troubles here.

As Luke Mastin writes, in his physics website

Einstein‘s position was not so much that quantum theory was wrong as that it must be incomplete. He insisted to his dying day that the idea that a particle’s position before observation was inherently unknowable (and, particularly, the existence of quantum effects such as entanglement as a result of this) was nonsense and made a mockery of the whole of physics. He was convinced that the positions and quantum states of particles (even supposedly entangled particles) must already have been established before observation. However, the practical impossiblity of experimentally proving this argument one way or another made it essentially a matter of philosophy rather than physics.

Philosophy, language, metaphor, mathematics… the spiral continues, never repeating or returning to the same place, yet cycling those elements, the major foundations of consciousness and modern science.



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Stephen the King, and I…


So true. But a secretary with a profound love and respect for words. That’s key. The writer, following characters and seeing the narrative, still must make the perfect choices as to words, style, voice, metaphor, foreshadowing, suspense, dialogue, story arc, characterization and more. Without all those choices as the novelist’s responsibility, he or she would just be a secretary without a clue.

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Where the fuckahwee??



The only direction in the universe, if theoretical physics is right, is ‘expanding.’ Outside of that theory, there is absolutely no direction, no up or down, left or right in our universe, or any universe. It is all relative, to the most infinite degree, rendering direction meaningless, except in direct relation to the observer used to habits of thinking.

Imagine floating in space. You look left. Is it left? You look up. Is it up? By what measure, by what compass points? A friend posited to me this ‘solution’: that ‘down’ is the direction of strongest gravitational pull in whatever part of space you happen to be. In other words, the baddest gravitational pull equals down, and away from that equals up. But look at this notion as it plays out throughout the universe. A simple example will do. One astronaut, on one planet, looks ‘upward’ from the planet surface. Another astronaut on another planet, looks upward also, but her up is in the opposite direction to the first astronaut’s because of where she stands on the planet, and where that planet is in relation to the other. Repeat this placement of these two astronauts, ad infinitum, at all possible points on the spherical planetary surfaces. It is obvious, from this example, that up and down are utterly, inescapably relativistic and thus meaningless. Move those two astronauts thousands of light years away, in any ‘direction’ and place them, again, on separate planets. The same conundrum is evidenced. There are infinite possibilities to call up or down. Ultimately, there is no up, down, north, east, west or south in the universe. We care about compass points. The universe doesn’t.

Recently, an article discussed a possible, apparent alignment of nebulae, like so: “Most planetary nebulae are roughly spherical; they’re not visibly “aligned” with anything. One especially spectacular subclass, however, is more hourglass-shaped, and when Rees and his colleague Albert Zijlstra examined this particular kind, the long dimensions of the clouds pointed more or less in the same direction. “They’re not exactly aligned,” he says, “but they’re not random.”

“Rees and Zijlstra have an idea. The interstellar cloud of gas and dust out of which stars form in the first place spreads out into a disk shape and then condenses, with the newly formed star toward the center of a platter of leftover dust swirling around it. That dust often forms planets. If the collapse happens in the presence of a strong magnetic field, the collapsing disk could be forced to align with that field.

Since the nebulae Rees and Zijlstra looked at in this study are located toward the dense core of the Milky Way, there might well have been strong magnetic fields present when the original stars formed. Double stars and single stars with belts of dust might thus have been lined up with the plane of the Milky Way right from birth—an effect that wouldn’t happen further out from the core of the galaxy, where Earth is located.”

So, if the possibility that some nebulae seem to have somewhat aligned with a strong magnetic force at the core, with the plane of the Milky Way,  suggests direction, is that direction down, up, in, out, north, south, east west, south-south east…?  you get my drift. Even the apparent core of the universe is not an indicator of place/direction in the way we see things from our planetary perspective.

Even if we could absolutely, unequivocally pinpoint the exact core of our universe, where would we say it is, in our own expanding universe, let alone relative to all the galaxies and universes seen and possible? It is neither up, down, left , right, or any compass point you could name, because there is no context within which to decide direction. Our universe may be expanding from its core, but the only directional/spatial point we could possibly use to indicate the place of that core is ‘here’ or ‘there’ with an arrow on a photograph. Strange, how infinite space does that. It destroys even human vocabulary. The mind, appropriately, boggles.

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