– William Borucki, quoted in “After discovering more than 2,600 planets, NASA’s Kepler space telescope is headed for retirement,” LA Times (October 30, 2018)
This extended simile is very NASA. Highly imaginative and mathematically precise.
A flea, 2mm in length, is about 1/100 the width of a headlight, just as Earth is about 1/100 the diameter of the Sun. A headlight seen from a mile away is a point of light. The Kepler telescope detected stars whose light was as faint as a headlight at 100 miles.
And thereby hangs a paradox. Metaphors and similes are figurative comparisons. As “figures of speech,” they are colorful and offer insight or impact but are not supposed to be taken literally. Being precise about phenomena that are wholly made up (no one is trying to detect fleas on headlights at great distances) puts us in a world of … well, science-fiction.
As a refresher, here are more typical examples of metaphor and simile:
47 Ursa Major c was a needle in a haystack.
Detecting extrasolar planets is like finding a needle in a haystack
The first example is a metaphor, a descriptive statement that is literally untrue but meant to imply a comparison. The second example is a simile, a figurative comparison (literally untrue) in which the comparison is made explicit, usually by use of like or as.
– A gangster in Peaky Blinders (S4, E4)
Lying low during a gang war, Tommy Shelby grows restless and frustrated. He is indeed a dangerous, inhuman being, held in by circumstances that are invisible and toxic.
Yet the metaphor’s impact comes not from its applicability to Shelby but from the fact that you – in a lifetime of summer afternoons – have seen a bug trapped in some similar way and you have given a moment’s thought to the vast incomprehensibility of the universe. You ask, “What does an insect know about glassmaking or brewing or the chemistry of his own body, succumbing to fumes that are no part of the life he was designed to live?”
In asking such questions, you come to the core of Greek tragedy: we think we know what our existence is all about, but we have no better idea than a wasp in a beer glass. As Sophocles says in Antigone, “Whom the gods would destroy they first make opinionated.”
Photo: Classics Dept/University of Reading post on Archaeology & Arts /https://www.archaeology.wiki/blog/2017/01/20/greek-tragedy-small-screen/
You can’t race against time – any more than a runner can race against the racetrack. A fish cannot outswim the sea, nor can a bird fly above the atmosphere.
However, it is possible to imagine a race against the clock. On the day Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes (May 6, 1954), he circled the track faster than a clock’s second hand swept around its circle. Even so, though Bannister beat the clock, he did not outrace time. Crossing the finish line, he was 3:59.4 minutes older than when the race started.
Consider an alternative scenario:
Time is a train, heading to Buffalo.
A runner in the caboose advances from car to car toward the locomotive, moving toward Buffalo faster than time itself. The runner climbs onto the cowcatcher in front and, with a hypothetical leap, arrives in Buffalo before the train of time – an achievement of infinite phenomenological significance but, alas, a very brief moment of victory (even Bannister got to hold his record for 46 days).
Is time like a train? Or is it more like a river, which is already joined to the sea before any boat can begin racing downstream?
In a search of Google Books, the earliest instance of “race against time” occurs in 1788, when the author of The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, promises he will write unhurriedly.
Photo: Karl Stull
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“Passed away” is a metaphor for having reached the end of the road in life’s journey – or at least one’s off-ramp. Others continue on their way, some taking a moment to mourn, thinking how they will miss the departed and his crazy lane changes. But the daily commute goes on.
Passing implies motion relative to something, in this case the boundary between life and death, which Shakespeare calls “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns” (Hamlet III.i.79-80). The ancient Greeks and Romans saw the boundary as a river. Christians view “the other side” as a bright city, in contrast to the Greek and Roman view of a twilight realm of discontented shadows, not unlike East Berlin in its day.
People sometimes say “passed” rather than “passed away,” as if the last gasp of the breath of life were a flatulent exhalation. Space, the final frontier; death, the final fart.
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Most people have never seen a meteor shower, because the best viewing is typically around three o’clock in the morning. That’s when your time zone is turning to face Earth’s direction of travel. In the pre-dawn hours, when you look UP into the sky, you are looking FORWARD on the orbital highway, and the atmosphere is your windshield. Any space rocks that hit our windshield light up and leave a momentary streak. Of course, meteors are also visible at other times of day, but then it’s like looking out side or rear windows – less chance of seeing a splat.
The orbital highway crosses several streams of cometary debris, which produce regularly scheduled meteor showers throughout the year. See a roundup of the best ones at: http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/earthskys-meteor-shower-guide
Photo: noricum / Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Illustration: Karl Stull
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