An egg is a space capsule.

– Neil deGrasse Tyson, on Real Time with Bill Maher (May 19, 2017)

An egg is a sealed environment, protecting a passenger. It provides oxygen, nutrition, waste disposal, and shielding against life-threatening conditions outside. It is fragile, but engineered aptly to its purpose, and strong enough for the job most of the time.

An egg is meant to be opened. An egg delivers its passenger to a new world.

Thinking about the first creatures that came out of the sea to live on the land, it’s hard to picture how they transitioned from breathing water to breathing air. Yet it happens every time a chick hatches, every time a baby is born.

So the egg:space capsule comparison brings us to the answer to an age-old question: Which came first, the astronaut or the space capsule?

Obviously, there can be no space travel before there is a space capsule.

Photo: Apollo 5 space capsule, NASA/Wikipedia


Soak the soil well, like a thunderstorm would.

– Care instructions for a potted cactus

It’s strange how we live with plants yet have so little understanding of what they want. We use metaphors to visualize what we cannot see, what’s happening with them beneath the surface.

The “water like a thunderstorm” principle has two compelling components: 1) easy to do, and 2) endorsed by Mother Nature. But we should keep in mind that Mother Nature is usually not a nurturing parent. Ninety-five percent of species under her care have gone extinct. If one of her babies can’t make a go of it, her strategy is to produce a lot more babies. Or, if conditions are too harsh, she may give up and allow an environment to become a desert.

In contrast, members of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America are helicopter parents, hovering over their little ones. They advise against watering like a thunderstorm, because over-watering may “drown” the roots. This imagery helps us conceptualize the needs of plants as similar to our own: humans need water every day and air every minute. But there must be something not quite right about the “drowning roots” metaphor. Ask a hydroponic tomato.

Photo: Hydroponic onions, NASA/Wikipedia

Drain the swamp

Swamp is an American word going back as far as John Smith, who said swamps were “more profitable than hurtful” (Generall Historie of Virginia, 1624). William Byrd II took a dimmer view in 1728. He named Virginia’s southern marshes the Great Dismal Swamp.

A swamp is low-lying ground covered by still or slow-moving water in which all kinds of plant and animal remains go to rot, enriching the soil and befouling the air. In 1825, Charles Lamb made “swamp of convalescence” a metaphor for personal stagnation. “Swamp of corruption” came into common use by the 1880s, when civic reform movements were going strong.

Swamps became wetlands in the mid-1960s. The more neutral term helped biologists use the concept of ecological zones to recognize the role of marshes in region-wide life cycles – for example, filtering water and providing habitat for ducks. In 1973, the Great Dismal Swamp became the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Half of Americans want to preserve wetlands. The other thirty percent say drain the swamp. Political division and image-based thinking prevent us from seeing that any right-thinking American wants both: to keep the literal wetlands and be rid of the metaphorical swamp.

Photo: Union Refugees in the Swamps of Louisiana, Harper’s Weekly (May 14, 1864) /

I prepared the way by congratulating him upon solving the Gordian knot of the Dutch difficulties by his keen judgment without the sword.

– Alvise Valaresso, Venetian ambassador to Britain (1622)

The story of the Gordian knot tells how Alexander the Great dealt with a challenge that had defied all comers for centuries: a knot so complicated it could not be untied. It was hard to know even where to begin, since both ends of the rope were hidden inside the knot’s coils. Alexander cut the knot with a stroke of his sword, and was credited ever after with innovative thinking.

It was a meathead’s solution, of course – like solving gridlock with an air strike.

A knot is one of humankind’s most elegant technologies, using the flexibility of rope, and its ability to turn back upon itself, to resist the force that would pull the knot apart. The harder the pull, the tighter the knot holds. It’s a very fit metaphor for the kinds of problems we face in an interdependent world. Ambassador Valaresso paid James I a high compliment in saying the king had found a way to lessen tensions without a shortcut to violence.

Photo: Monkey’s fist knot (tied with a metal weight inside to facilitate throwing that end of the rope, to an approaching boat, for example);

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What Plants Sense and “Say” May Impact the Future of Weed Control

– news item from the Weed Science Society of America

Agriculture Victoria (, adapted by Karl Stull

Parasitic plants detect preferred victims by their chemistry. When the stringy strangling weed called dodder “smells” tomato, it knows it has found a home. After detection comes a kind of conversation, according to researchers at Virginia Tech. Dodder and its host exchange information at the cellular level. That is, bits of messenger RNA from each plant turn up in the other’s cells. The plants “share” information, in the sense that mRNA code is copied and available to both.

This seems to fit the definition of communication under the conduit model. We see (1) sending, (2) a container/carrier, and (3) a coded message inside.

The fact that dodder’s side of the communication may be deceptive and self-serving… well, doesn’t make it untypical of daily communications.


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Well, that’s brothers for you: they always know which buttons to press.

– Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Spectre (2015)

Revealing to James Bond that they are long-lost brothers, Blofeld is rueful (“I’ve really put you through a lot, haven’t I?”) and uses a metaphor suggesting that the people who are closest to you – and best able to understand your humanity – are the very ones who can make you respond like a machine.

As if you were an emotional elevator to be sent up or down on command. Or an Osterizer with settings for SHAME, JEALOUSY, VANITY, FEAR, and FRENZY. Or a jukebox, playing a certain song every time somebody pushes B-4 or U-1.

The idea that humans are like machines took hold in the 1600s, after Hieronymus Fabricius discovered there are valves in veins and William Harvey showed that the heart – fountain of courage and love! – is a pump. In everyday metaphors, we speak of eating as refueling, of having a drink as oiling the machinery. People refer to the heart as a ticker or the lungs as bellows.

But we seem to use mechanical metaphors even more often when talking about our mental and emotional workings. People run out of gas, have breakdowns. They blow a fuse or gasket when under too much pressure, which builds when feelings are bottled up with no safety valve. People are subject to stress, like metal parts, and sometimes they snap. On the bright side, when people like each other, they click.

Photo: Scene from R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920) by Karel Capek; Wikipedia

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This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.

– President Donald Trump, February 17, 2017

The image of a machine being “tuned” may have originated in the textile mills of 19th century Yorkshire. Workers there called it “tuning” when they did repairs on power looms, which looked somewhat like upright pianos and required tensioning of many strings. (Elsewhere this work was called “tackling,” according to the OED.)

By the 1930s, mechanics were “tuning” engines in cars, boats, and aircraft. There is nothing musical about internal combustion (unless you count the motor’s “hum”), but many sensitive adjustments are required to keep mechanical, electrical, and chemical systems performing in harmony – a challenge worthy of comparison to the exquisite tuning of a Steinway.

The term “fine tuning” took on a non-musical meaning in the early days of two-way radio and came into wider use after the 1950s, when TV sets had dials with an outer ring that you twisted back and forth in search of a better picture (like a piano tuner, in search of the right frequency).

Before long, any dynamic system with many small parts could be called “a fine-tuned machine”: the Army, the Dallas Cowboys, the human body, the economy, crop management… Niagara Farm and Garden News (1967) warned that using atrazine on corn crops at the wrong moment “would be analogous to throwing a monkey wrench into a fine-tuned machine.”

The Oldsmobile 98 Regency was a fine-tuned machine, according to magazine ads in 1978 – about the time Donald Trump launched his first big hotel project. Only three years later, General Motors demonstrated it was possible to run an Oldsmobile on coal dust. Here’s a three-minute video:

Photo: Dobby loom; (a teacher’s page)


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