By Ann Finkbeiner | May 25, 2010 | 2 Comments
Science is not normally in the metaphor business, but occasionally when it crosses the cultural divide between it and the rest of us, it does so via metaphors. Maybe the most common one is black holes. To scientists, black holes are singularities so dense, so gravitationally powerful, that nothing falling into them can return. To the rest of us, black holes are metaphors for closets, the economy, and the end-of-season position of the Baltimore Orioles. I’d like to offer another metaphor not currently in use: violent relaxation.
First I should point out that metaphor and science have already been subject to serious academic thought. Some academics think that scientists understand science by using metaphors from regular life: cells work like little machines, or brains like linked computers. Other academics think that metaphors guide and even constrain the kind of science possible: would medical scientists understand the immune system differently if they didn’t call it a war zone with compromised defenses, and killer T cells? My own interest in scientific metaphors is entirely unacademic. I just think they’re pretty. If anyone is interested, I have more.
Violent relaxation: at first I thought it meant a very stiff drink. It’s not, it’s astronomical theory. Galaxies are usually what astronomers call “relaxed” systems: systems of stars in stable, orderly paths around a common center. But when galaxies first form up, the process is anything but serene. Clouds of gas and dust fall in together, coalesce into stars which blow up, scatter off each other, and race around every which way; young galaxies are little buzzing messes. Then suddenly, dramatically, the stars sort out each other’s gravitational influences, find their common center, and the galaxy relaxes into a lovely spiral. Relaxation catalyzed by violence, orderliness catalyzed by turmoil: it reminds me of those people who had effortless and serene childhoods who also managed to avoid the rigors of maturity. It makes me feel better about those fights with my mother.
photo credit: European Southern Observatory, R. Gendler, U.G. Jørgensen, J. Skottfelt, K. Harpsøe