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The solar system, the atom, the Higgs Boson … the truth … “Nahhh, I’ll stay under my warm cuddly blanket for a bit longer!”

Published on 18 July 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024


In a very thoughtful piece titled “Don’t blame man, blame the Polynesian rat” Aldo Matteucci warned about the dangers of analogies (and metaphors for that matter). He did so in a reply to one of my blog posts in which I praised the usefulness of metaphors to make sense of complex and intangible entities or phenomena such as climate change.  

As you would expect, an argument against analogy and metaphor and for “the truth” will focus on the material world and the possibility of empirical testing. Climate change is not a good candidate to further engage with this argument. So, let’s get material, or better, let’s get physical! And what better example is there then the very material that everything else is made of – the atom and sub-atomic particles?  

My starting point is that we cannot know the world as it is; we can’t look at it directly. We can’t discover things in themselves. For the process of discovery and understanding, metaphors and analogies are inevitable. This is where Aldo offers a warning. He argues that “analogies are the high road to “self-affirmation” – they invariably give us the warm feeling that we “know”, or that the explanation is “plausible”. We’ll never let truth stand in the way of such a cuddly feeling.” Ultimately, he argues, the cuddly feeling that we get under our blanket of analogies and metaphors creates the illusion of knowing; the truth is shut out.

What truth? I for my part like being under my cosy blanket of metaphors. But maybe this is not so much for the cosiness but for the realisation that either there is no truth or, if there is, we don’t have direct access to it. From this position, let me try and save the good name of analogies and metaphors from the paws of Aldo’s Polynesian rat.

My answer to Aldo is that walking this “high road” road is inevitable. The trick of what we call science comes in along the way. And what’s wrong with warm and cuddly feelings along the way?

So what about the atom? If you had to imagine an atom, what would you imagine? What do you see in your mind right now? Most of us would use an image we know from school. It surely will look a bit like a solar system. The nucleus is in the middle and the electrons circle around it on elliptical trajectories. Right?

The similarity with the solar system is not an accident. At the time when the model was developed, we had much greater knowledge about the solar system. So, it seemed a useful analogy or metaphor for the atom which was just being explored at the time. What we can see here is a process of structural mapping at play. Structures, relations between objects, found in one context are transferred to a new a context. Any metaphor used in a scientific, explorative context, will have this process at its core.  

And yes, I can hear you shouting right at this point, “but this model is outdated to such an extend that it is almost embarrassing that we still teach it to kids in school.” Indeed, physics has moved on. Physicists started to look at electron clouds and quantum waves. Metaphors anyone?

“Yes,” you might say, “but this only a little language game, to verbalise and illustrate what is actually going on.“

There is an argument to be made that these metaphors and images, these thought experiments, guided the mathematical models and guided empirical research. You cannot research what you can’t think. And, maybe we need to start to entertain the radical idea that there is no thought outside of language. Moreover, if we cannot research what we cannot think, than any new discovery will inevitably be bound up in an older system of thought.

What is scientific discovery then? Science is never simply looking at the “reality” and discovering “the truth”. It is also never a direct comparison between our theories and “the reality out there” to refute all those “silly” metaphors. It’s a process of working with the best possible explanation and maintaining it for as long as there is no better possible explanation around. This is how you move from the atom as a solar system, to electron clouds and quantum waves, all the way to the Higgs Boson, the god particle.

I maintain that we can’t escape the blanket of metaphors. And like children lying in their beds at night, being afraid of the dark, all we can hope for is getting a glimpse of the world out their every now then. The rest of the story inevitable unfolds in the safe hiding place under our blanket. And if it is cuddly, all the better!

2 replies
  1. Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone says:

    Hi Steve, brilliant comment.
    Hi Steve, brilliant comment. You point to a really important distinction: so called theory-constitutive metaphors and pedagogical metaphors. I started reading a bit about the Higgs Boson and here, there are many metaphors employed to make what it is understandable to us, the lay people. That is the one kind. The other kind is the theory constitutive metaphor. If we really take the idea seriously that all thought is mediated by language, or even stronger that there is no thought outside of language (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – every time I use this phrase, it makes me smile …) then all our theories are in language and never outside it. My current understanding is this: metaphors inspire a model, and as the metaphor is further explored through structural mapping, you develop a model. And you are right, these models are not interchangeably. There is a dominant one unless new evidence prompts us to review it (at least for the physical sciences, the social sciences are another beast …). My metaphor at the end (a pedagogical one if that even) developed as a direct reply to the criticism I received. It doesn’t fit in all aspects, I agree. What I imagined though is this: Scientists got a glimpse of the real world through an experiment. They develop a model (inspired by a metaphor). Then there are further experiments to see how well the model works. Each as experiment is “peeking out from under your blanket” while in the safety of your cover you develop the model that hopefully fits whatever is “actually” going on outside.

  2. Steve Schlegel
    Steve Schlegel says:

    Speaking strictly in
    Speaking strictly in linguistic terms, you are of course right: everything is somehow a metaphor, as thought and language cannot really be divided.
    But to my mind there is still a difference between a physical “model” and a classical “metaphor”. A “model” is the most precise description available for a physical phenomenon, it´s used by the experts of the subject and can be updated by new findings. But it is based on the consensus of the experts of the given subject and even more important: They don´t have a choice whether to use it or not (Of course, they can overthrow the old model for a new one, but then they have no choice whether to use the new one or not, till they have new findings, etc.).
    A classical “metaphor” on the other hand is deliberately used to reduce complexity to help the interested non-expert and can be used by everyone. And by reducing the complexity of the model, it can become misguiding easily. But: There always is a choice between staying with the metaphor or going for the “real” model.
    Thus, to my mind using the “children under the blanket”-metaphor is kind of misguiding when talking about physical “models”, as children can always choose whether to stay under the blanket or not, but you cannot choose how much complexity you want in the model.


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