“Darwin was happy to be tasked with telling a fire by its ashes.”
Was it an actual thing, I wondered, this “telling a fire by its ashes”? I tried to think if I’d ever heard the phrase. Not that I could recall. So I Googled it. Nothing. I Googled variations on it. Still nothing. I resisted the impulse to email the student and ask if he’d made it up. As much as I wanted to know the answer, I also wanted to hear his peers’ reaction to the question; the seminar consisted of eight students, most of whom were happy to cross-talk at high volume—a teacher’s dream of engagement and passion.
So I waited until Tuesday. When the time came to discuss this student’s essay, I asked him directly: Was it an actual thing, this “telling a fire by its ashes”?
No, he said. He just made it up.
“I’d wondered about that, too,” another student shouted. Soon just about everyone was talking about how much they liked the phrase—how evocative and powerful it was, and how they, too, had wondered whether it was actually a thing, and, now that they knew it wasn’t, why nobody had ever thought of it before. It should be a thing, was the quick consensus. And, the students decided, we were just the ones to do it: We would try to make it a meme.
The student who invented the phrase, Alex Hamm, gave us his blessing. Most of the students in the seminar were science majors; they pledged to repeat the phrase in passing in their labs or classes, as if it were already a thing that everybody knew. I promised to take a more direct approach and to do precisely what I’m doing now: present it in public, accompanied by a plea.
I know that the metaphor isn’t perfect. The word “ashes” suggests dissolution or disintegration, not evolution or selection. But the word does imply origins. More important, the whole phrase captures the monumental difficulty, the seeming impossibility, of the fundamental challenge: to sift through present evidence to identify an otherwise irretrievable past, to bridge a connection from the unthinkingly familiar to the unthinkably foreign.
As I sat in the classroom that Tuesday afternoon, I realized the metaphor can apply equally well to my own primary area of scientific interest, cosmology. Scientists have figured out how to sift through the radiation “ashes” that permeate our present-day existence—the cosmic microwave background—to find the origin of our universe—or, as the physics department at Princeton aptly (for our present metaphorical purposes) preferred to call it back in the 1960s, when they theorized the properties of the cosmic microwave background just prior to its discovery, the “primeval fireball.” If you’re a scientist or you write about science, maybe the phrase applies to your field, too.
So c’mon, people! “Telling a fire by its ashes”: Let’s make it a thing.