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_1899Wikipedia

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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

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.

The first NASA mission was Ben Franklin’s kite.

– Source unknown (possibly Neil de Grasse Tyson)

Ben Franklin’s kite was like a NASA mission in several ways. Launched during a thunderstorm in Philadelphia in 1752, the kite was an American vehicle sent skyward for a scientific purpose. The vehicle remained in communication with ground control, via the kite string. And it carried a sensor: a metal rod that picked up an electrical charge from the stormy atmosphere.

The charge was conveyed through the wet kite string to a metal key, which was connected to a Leyden jar, which stored the charge. Using scientific tests of the time, Franklin confirmed the jar had acquired a charge and so proved that the nature of thunderstorms was electrical.

Was this a remote-sensing mission, like Galileo, which traveled to Jupiter and sent back science data? Seen another way, Ben Franklin’s kite might have been more of a sample-return mission, bringing electricity from the sky to earth for analysis, the way Apollo missions brought rocks from the Moon – and future missions will someday bring rocks from Mars.

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