Science Metaphors (cont.): Violent Relaxation


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

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2 thoughts on “Science Metaphors (cont.): Violent Relaxation

  1. very interesting. i actually think that “black hole” counts as metaphor when used by a physicist as well since “holes” aren’t exactly entities from which nothing can return or singularities. i have thought a lot about whether “information” counts as metaphor in genetics and physics (as in relatively recent findings that “information” can escape a black hole.) i won’t blather on, but thanks for this.

  2. I think “black holes” was a name made up by John A. Wheeler to be 1) poetic and 2) provocative. I like your idea of “information,” and agree I don’t know whether it counts as metaphor or not. Thank you for commenting.

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