Dark money groups are multiplying – and thriving – on both ends of the political spectrum.

– Michael Beckel, “What Is Political ‘Dark Money’ – and Is It Bad?” The Center for Public Integrity / publicintegrity.org (January 20, 2016)

Dark money is like dark matter: you can’t see it, but you’re influenced by it.

In Citizens United (2010), the Supreme Court cleared a path for political donors who wanted to exceed legal limits on contributions to candidates and parties. The donors also wanted to remain anonymous. As a result of the Court’s decision, spending by ghostly nonprofits now overshadows “on the books” funding of candidates and parties. In US elections in 2018, dark money from the top three 501c(3) nonprofit contributors grew to $60 million – with $40 million going to liberal campaigns and $20 million to conservative campaigns (Schatzinger and ‎ Martin, Game Changer, 2020).

As for dark matter, it is mass that astronomers can’t see but are sure must exist. It must exist because the motion of spiral galaxies is inconsistent with Newton’s universal law of gravitation. The math in Newton’s law says the universe needs about 25 times more mass than we’ve detected so far, to account for the spiral galaxies’ speedy spin. It would be a serious setback for science if the word universal had to be removed from the law of gravitation.

Heigh-ho, proposing a new class of untraceable matter is a radical way to solve an equation, but as Sherlock Holmes might say: Once you’ve ruled out the imponderable, whatever remains must be the truth.

Dark matter, like dark money, is a perplexity of law, accountability, and gigantic unseen forces.

Photo: Karl Stull

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The right to vote and trial by jury “are the heart and lungs, the mainspring and the centre wheel….In these two powers consist wholly the liberty and security of the people.”

– John Adams, Boston Gazette (January 27, 1766)

It’s a jolt to see biology and technology put together this way by one of the Founding Fathers, but Adams may well have viewed the ticking of a heart and the ticking of a clock as two sides of the same coin. Physician William Harvey described the heart as a mechanical pump in 1628, dispelling earlier views of that organ as a magic bag of courage.

In a clock, the center wheel acts as a regulator, metering energy out to the gears in small, steady pushes. Similarly, the heart pushes units of energy (red blood cells, laden with oxygen) through the human body.

In a democracy, voting delivers life-sustaining energy throughout the body politic.

Painting: Portrait of John Adams by Gilbert Stuart via Library of Congress

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We are preparing for the battle at the top of the mountain.

– Governor Andrew Cuomo (NY), March 31, 2020

The “mountain” Governor Cuomo had in mind was a statistical curve showing the distribution of COVID-19 cases – coming all at once or spread out over time. A very steep curve would hit the health care system like a tsunami, said ER management consultant Eric Holdeman (mrsc.org, March 24). President Trump questioned whether “mountain” was too tall a term.

You look at most places where that – you can call it the bump, you can call it the hill, you can call it the mountain, you can call it whatever you want – it’s very flat. (April 6)

At the same press briefing, President Trump saw “light at the end of the tunnel,” suggesting there could be rapid progress through the bump/hill/mountain. A couple of weeks earlier, epidemiologist Michael Mina was also thinking in terms of a tunnel: “We are flying blind through this tunnel at the moment, and we don’t know where we are in the epidemic curve” (LA Times, March 24).

Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University, a specialist in global health issues, cautioned there is still a considerable way to go back down after reaching the peak of Everest (CNN, April 8). Further imagery on “getting from here to there”:

This may be a marathon, not a sprint . – Tyler Falk (National Public Radio, March 6)

It’s not time to take your foot off the accelerator. – Dr. Anthony Fauci (White House COVID-19 Task Force, March 31)

The only regret we will have is if people cut the parachute before we land. – Gov. Gavin Newsom (CA) (March 31)

Looking ahead to the other side of the mountain, Governor Cuomo anticipated a program of antibody testing: “That is going to be the bridge from where we are today to the new economy” (April 8). A week later, he added:

We are bridge builders. That’s what we do. Sometimes literally, sometimes symbolically, sometimes metaphorically. (April 15)

Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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His face was as pitted as the moon.

– Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist (2012)

Some craters on the Moon are from meteorite impacts, others from volcanic eruptions. The pitting on the orchardist’s face is from smallpox, a disease of skin eruptions.

Smallpox manifests with a rash; the pimples burst and scab over. The scars are a literal record of having had the disease. In The Orchardist, they are the metaphorical mark of a survivor – someone who has endured catastrophe, and healed imperfectly.

People looking at the blotchy basins of the Moon, filled with dark lava, may see a face – like a lopsided jack o’lantern. That man in the moon has looked upon innumerable seasons of planting and harvest, myriad years of disaster.

Photo: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

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Poirot, Holmes, Wimsey, Marple, Morse… What was it like for them? A slow process like constructing a jigsaw? Or did it come in a rush, one last turn in a toy kaleidoscope when all the colors and shapes tumbled and twisted into each other, forming a recognizable image?

– Anthony Horowitz, The Magpie Murders (2016)

For Sherlock Holmes, discovering the solution to a mystery was like completing a jigsaw puzzle. His method was to rule out ways the pieces of evidence could not possibly fit together:

It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. (“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”)

For most of us, the search for a right answer is less systematic. Often, there is an “Aha!” moment when a seeming mess of facts resolves into a clear pattern. The revelation happens all at once, as with the crank of a kaleidoscope.

But no one cranks a kaleidoscope just once. With every turn, the kaleidoscope presents the same set of facts in a new order of dazzling possibility. And the game is afoot again, Mr. Holmes.

Video: See how a triangle of mirrors will produce kaleidoscope effects –   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxdGpXSTc0Q

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As viewed by physicists, a solid “consists of a pattern of atoms repeated over and over again…like a large hotel with floor upon floor of identical rooms, identically furnished.”

– Alan Holden and Phylis Singer, Crystals and Crystal Growing (1960)


Waldorf-Astoria, 1899, via Wikipedia

This passage asks you to visualize something no human has ever seen – the atomic structure of a molecule – in terms of something invented by humans: a skyscraper. As a description, it would be wholly self-referential, and useless as a unicorn, if the imagined hotel did not connect in some way with real solids in the observable world.

Happily, the image agrees with results from scientific experiments. Materials that physicists classify as solids test positive for hotel-ish qualities: uniformity of material, repetitious structure, and interlocking connections. Experiments would yield very different results if it turned out solids were really more like a loose pile of clothes in a hamper than like the Waldorf-Astoria.

In most ways, admittedly, the hotel comparison is bogus. Atoms are subject to vibrations and attracting forces that would make a hotel uninhabitable. But this is how metaphor works: by describing a thing as if it were something else, which it is not. This is what poets mean when they say they tell “lies” to reveal a truth. This is what fiction is. We imagine what the eye literally cannot see, and sometimes there is truth in it.

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All of us are trim tabs, man.

– Jeff Bridges on Real Time (October 5, 2018)

Jeff Bridges credits the trim-tab metaphor to Buckminster Fuller, who compared social reform to steering a supertanker. The rudder on a vessel that size is so large it can’t be turned by ordinary means. The engineering solution is the trim tab, a mini-rudder that steers the main rudder, which then turns the ship.

From this principle, it follows that small groups and even individuals can influence the behavior of a mass society – turning it away from traditions of racism, for example.

While supporting the hope that a few good people can bring about good on a grand scale, the metaphor includes a stern requirement, that trim tabs do their work in conjunction with a rudder. Random acts of kindness do not turn the ship; turning the rudder turns the ship.

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Okay, I think we took that subway one stop too far.

– Bill Maher, Real Time (May 3, 2019)

Maher was talking to Moby, who had just made the point that the third-largest contributor to global climate change is animal agriculture. Not addressing animal agriculture, Moby said, was like worrying about lung cancer and not addressing tobacco. This won warm applause.

On a roll, Moby went on. He didn’t like human beings very much (being a pro-animals activist), so maybe it would be just as well to ignore climate change and “you all keep eating beef and bacon until you die.” Everyone understood “you” was being used in the most general sense, but the second-person pronoun sounds personal, and the audience felt…thrown off the Moby train. The silence was like a tunnel with no light at the end.

Maher put the show back on track with his reference to subsurface transportation. In some ways, a lively conversation is very much like an unfamiliar route on a subway. You have a destination in mind but can’t see what’s ahead. Which is why not getting off the conversational train at the right moment is a mistake that everyone with the power of speech has made.

An unlively conversation, too, is like a ride on the subway – on a line that is all too familiar, rolling on rails to the same dreary platforms. As conversational commuters, we must mind the gap.

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The contact lens for your ear.

– Advertisement for a miniature hearing aid

If this is your first time reading about a contact lens for the ear, you might wonder how a device to improve hearing can be like a device to improve eyesight. Hearing and seeing are both sensory experiences but not at all alike. Seeing a cello is not the same as hearing one.

So this is a comparison that, rather than explaining, works by demanding an explanation. Certain jokes use the same trick – for example, Ben Franklin’s assertion that houseguests are like fish. (They begin to smell after three days.) Metaphors are usually meant to clarify but sometimes they mystify on purpose – so the audience will be curious and pay close attention.

Lyric hearing aids – much smaller than conventional hearing aids – are implanted inside the ear, so they are invisible to the public, like contact lenses. People judge you to be younger and more attractive.when you are not wearing bulky apparatuses, such as bifocal glasses or boxy earplugs.

Metaphor is a contact lens for your mind.

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It’s like trying to detect a flea crawling in front of a car headlight, when the car is 100 miles away.

– 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.

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