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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