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MACROSCOPE: Rickety, but powerful

A while back (May 26, 2014) I posted a piece about art, science, and medicine, in which I made a statement that I immediately regretted. It was flippant, specious, and just plain wrong.

I was discussing the relationship of art and science with medicine, comparing them to the relationship of position and velocity with elementary particles, as described by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal. I finished with a parenthetical aside: Alert: This is a metaphor—art not science—but you can see how they get mixed up.

Science, of course, does not eschew metaphor. In fact, it is at least half metaphor itself.

At its root science has two great divisions: taxonomy and synthesis. In the early stages of any field of science, it is necessary to develop a common structure and nomenclature so that the field can be meaningfully thought about and discussed. Taxonomy is all about observation and classification, and the naming of things in the context thus created. Synthesis is all about joining separate parts into a working whole. Once the taxonomists have built the edifice, the synthesizers seek to understand it. The main tool they use is metaphor.


Carl Linneus


Charles Darwin

Carolus Linneus, the Swedish biologist who gave us the binomial system that we still use today to classify all living things, is an example of a great scientific mind engaged primarily in taxonomy. Linneus’ work, together with the geologic observations of James Hutton, enabled England’s Charles Darwin to synthesize  his theory of Natural Selection. This idea, together with the century-old observations of Gregor Mendel and half-century-old work of Watson and Crick, gave rise, through many new waves of observation and assembly, to the brand new science of molecular biology.


tycho brahe

Tycho Brahe


Isaac Newton

Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer who precisely cataloged the movements of thousands of heavenly bodies, was a master taxonomist but rather a dud at synthesis. His cosmology, which sought to reconcile Ptolemy’s 2nd-century earth-centric system with Copernicus’ new sun-centric idea, never really worked. Copernicus’ radical thinking, however, when combined with Brahe’s vast database, allowed Johannes Kepler to formulate his laws of planetary motion. These, together with Galileo’s observations of falling bodies, among other things, led Isaac Newton to synthesize his laws of gravity and motion. Over the centuries observations and ideas continued to come together, forming veritable skyscrapers of thought, until eventually men left booted footprints on the moon.

apollo stamp

Apollo bringing the sun

Apollo bringing the sun

Since ancient times people have sought to explain phenomena they could not understand by invoking causes they could not see.





The storms that sank ancient Grecian ships were sent by enraged Poseidon, the testy Greek god of the sea. Lovely Freya sent the pangs of love that so mysteriously stirred the Norseman’s breast when the beautiful Brunhilde passed by, but also fired him up for war from her chariot pulled by two giant cats. In his golden chariot Apollo brought the sun to the Roman world each morning, along with the fires of creativity, healing, prophesy and more. Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, brought life and civilization to the ancient Mesoamerican peoples. Today we no longer believe these explanations; we file them under humanities or arts, not science.

feathered serpent

Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent

quixoteArt seeks truth through metaphor. The quests of Don Quixote ring as true today as they did four hundred years ago, although they never happened. If you want to know about Victorian London you can read the dry facts in a history book, or you can let Charles Dickens take you there. Which experience is truer?  The Mona Lisa will teach you silently, if you listen carefully, about the very nature of mystery itself. Art uses things which are not facts to bring us closer to underlying, unknowable truths.

Scientists who synthesize do not claim to be seeing reality directly, either. Instead they describe it through a metaphor that makes predictions which can be tested. They speak of the “Theory of Evolution” and the “Standard Model” of particle physics, treating these things as if they were real while acknowledging that they are not.

This conundrum haunts the very definition of the word theory, which can mean:

atom1)      a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena, (“Quantum Theory”), or

2)      a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural and subject to experimentation or proof, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact (“the prosecution’s theory of the case”), or even

3)      a contemplation, speculation, guess or conjecture (“I have a theory about life after death”).

platos cavePhilosophers have long been skeptical about our ability to perceive the world as it really is. Plato explained this in his Allegory of the Cave, in which he describes prisoners who have lived their lives chained to the wall in a cave in such a way that they can see nothing but the flickering shadows on the wall in front of them.  Behind them burns a steady fire.  Between the prisoners and the fire is a walkway where puppeteers hold up things that cast the shadows on the wall.  The prisoners cannot see themselves or each other directly, and nothing moves in front of them.  The shadows comprise the entire world that they perceive.

Then one of them is freed and dragged up into the painful, dazzling sunshine. Eventually his eyes adjust, and he sees the world as it really is. He becomes the enlightened “Philosopher-King”. When he is dragged back down into the cave, he tries to tell the other prisoners what he has seen. He exhorts them to throw off their chains and join him in the light. Thinking him mad, they slay him.

In this metaphor, we are all the prisoners chained to the wall, incapable of seeing the actual world, and the enlightened few who, through the application of pure reason, have become Philosopher-Kings. Reality exists, but only outside the cave, beyond the reach of the common mind.


Rene Descartes

Throughout its herky-jerky evolution, science has claimed to be reality only at its own peril. Aristotle thought he knew all there was to know about falling bodies until Galileo’s experiments proved him wrong. The church knew all about the flat Earth and the crystal globes that twirled around it in a perfect heaven, until a host of mounting observations overwhelmed these ideas. “Cogito, ergo sum,” declaimed Rene Descartes, the great 17th century French polymath: “I think, therefor I am.” We can directly experience the fact of our own existence; all else in conjecture.

m and mThe more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote,” wrote Albert A. Morley confidently at the close of the nineteenth century. This is ironic, because Morley, with his partner in science Edward W. Michelson, was then dedicating his professional life to a quixotic quest: demonstrating the reality of the “luminiferous aether”, a mysterious medium which the science of Newton and Maxwell required to carry light waves across the vast vacuum of space.  Waves, the thinking went, are a disturbance of a medium:  sound waves a disturbance of air, surf a disturbance of water.  So light waves were a disturbance of the aether, which pervaded all the universe.  The pair were unable to find it.

planck In 1905 Albert Einstein, inspired by Michelson and Morley’s epic fail, published his first paper on relativity. Also in the air at the turn of the century was Max Plank’s demonstration that energy, like matter, was composed of atom-like elements he called quanta, which behaved in curious ways. These two gigantic ideas, relativity and quantum mechanics, toppled Newton/Maxwell physics and rebuilt it on a new foundation. In the process, the need for Morley’s luminiferous aether completely evaporated.  It had never existed after all.

einstein2Thinking of science as reality is lazy thinking. Science is a description of something which is probably real, using an unusual kind of metaphor—one that is    testable through experiment. The history of gravity is an interesting case in point.  Aristotle decreed that heavy objects fall faster than light ones. Galileo timed spheres as they rolled down inclines; he showed that their rates of descent were not dependent on their weights—heavy spheres fall at the same rate as light ones. Newton thought up a metaphor for gravity that showed with mathematical precision that the gravitational attraction between two objects gets larger as their combined masses get larger, and smaller as the distance between them grows, but their rates of acceleration toward each other are always the same. {F =g(m1m2/r2), for the scientists among you.} Through centuries of testing this metaphor has proved accurate, describing with equal grace the falling of an apple from a tree, the arc of a cannonball through space, and the movements of planets around the sun.  The Industrial Revolution, from its locomotives and steam-powered leviathins to its host of mechanical devices in homes, farm fields, and factories, even the moon landing itself, were all achieved using Newtonian physics.

When the fiasco of the Michelson-Morley experiment finally made the metaphor of gravitational force obsolete, Einstein’s one-time mentor Hermann Minkowsky thought up the metaphor of spacetime. Einstein took this idea and ran with it, joining it with his own Special Theory of Relativity to synthesize the General Theory of Relativity.  This intellectual monument explains gravity with uncanny precision on large scales like the solar system’s, but not so well on subatomic scales, where gravity does not seem to exist at all. In such tiny places another metaphor, called quantum theory, describes infinitesimal particles and actions in terms of waves of probability, but it makes a hash of describing gravity. Relativity and quantum mechanics are both metaphors for the underpinnings of the universe. Both have undergone more than a century of experimental testing and found to be accurate. Yet they are fundamentally incompatible.

Yet another metaphor, called string theory, accurately describes gravity, electromagnetism, and matter from unfathomably cosmic to inconceivably infinitesimal sub-quantum scales. Yet string theory requires leaps of faith into places that are hard for today’s mind, raised on Newton, Einstein, and Planck, to go. For example, spacetime must consist of eleven or more dimensions, rather than the four (height, length, width and time) that we perceive.

Our trouble comprehending it has nothing to do with its accuracy as a metaphor, however. Those dimensions may be easier for future generations to understand and use in their scientific work than we find them to be today. As Max Planck explained a century ago, “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” That happened with relativity and with quantum theory, and may happen with string theory as well. Or perhaps a better metaphor is waiting in the wings.

I have gone on much longer than I expected to do when I began, and now you are wondering why, when I promised to write about science and art, I seem to dwelling on science alone.  What I’m struggling to understand here really is how our minds deal with the flood of our perceptions, and what is out there (whatever ‘out there‘ means) that we should perceive at all.  At that quantum level of consciousness, the difference between art and science seems insignificant.

Now the punch-line is likely to be anticlimactic. I mean to make one very simple point: if metaphor is art, and science is metaphor, then science must be art. I really believe this to be true. The mental exertions that produce grand scientific theories are virtually identical in kind to the mental exertions that produce artistic masterpieces. Art and science are two expressions on the same human face, gazing up at the stars or down past his feet, trying to imagine the key metaphor that will make it all make sense.

Homo sapiens (wise man) is actually Homo admiratio (wondering man, or astonished man)  Isn’t it admiratio that Latin conflates wonderment with astonishment?  I wish we had a word like that.

The artist and the scientist are pursuing the same thing: a metaphor that will bring them closer to the truth that lies behind the flickering shadows on the wall of the cave wherein we all dwell.