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Everything is a Metaphor for Something Else

I studied mathematics and then physics part time as an adult. So for me it was somewhat of a relief that pretty much the only two math equations I needed to know in physics were the wave equation

Illustration of a Spherical wave

and the heat equation

Illustration of the Heat equation

(It was a little more complicated than that, but I am trying use a story to illustrate a larger truth.) Even the two equations, ‘wave’ and ‘heat’, seemed to resemble one another.

What I learned in Intermediate Mechanics class applied to Electricity and Magnetism; Introduction to Quantum Mechanics applied to Digital Communications. Every course I took seemed to take the previous course as a metaphor and build on it. Heat flow was like diffusion, which was like semiconductor physics, which was like the national weather patterns I saw on TV.

To me, as an adult learner, this seemed strangely wonderful… If everything was a metaphor for something else, then could the universe be sort of like a humongous self-referential Escher drawing?

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The Myth of Matter, p. 9

Matter as Metaphor

We begin this section where we ended the last one. Quoting Prof. Max Jammer–

Since the end of the nineteenth century physicists and philosophers have been cherishing the hope that all of the problems related to mass could be resolved if a theory could be constructed that reveals what they called “the nature of mass,” that is, a theory that explains the origin, existence and phenomenological properties of mass. Of course … any talk about “the nature of mass” would be scientifically meaningless or metaphysical rigmarole. [Yet] the quest for a theory of the nature of mass arises from a profound epistemological motivation. It is no exaggeration to say that all experiments and certainly all measurements in physics are in the last analysis … ultimately based on observations of the position of a particle or of a pointer on a scale as a function of time. … Hence, the term ‘mass’, thus defined, has no absolute meaning since it always implies a relation to an object chosen to serve as the unit of mass.[1]

Unless I am mistaken, Prof. Jammer is saying that the whole of physics is one great circular argument, and that the idea of “the nature of matter”, simply and not self-referentially defined, is mythical. Since “all measurements” are based on matter, and since matter itself is only defined in an axiomatic sense, one might see physics as a belief system, albeit a very powerful and constructive one.


[1] Concepts of Mass in Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, pages 139–140

The Myth of Matter, p. 8

After Einstein

Some people say –perhaps rightly– Einstein didn’t really invent any new theories at all. It’s a fact that other people were working on parts of the same ideas that Einstein put together in his four miracle papers. This complaint reminds me of the Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” On one level, like with Einstein’s work, Hans Christian Andersen’s story was based on a German version of a story that was originally published by a 14th century Spanish author.[1] Did Andersen plagiarize the fairy tale, or did he recast and improve it? (In the original, there was no innocent child calling out the truth of the naked emperor; that was due to Andersen’s creative input alone.)

On another level, Albert Einstein was like Andersen’s child calling out the naked truth. There was no such thing (necessarily) as ‘luminiferous ether’. Nor was there any such thing (fundamentally) as indestructible matter, atomic or otherwise.

Now to get back to the theory of matter and energy, let us spend some time thinking (naively) about their relationship, as proposed by Einstein. Our everyday experience is that we can release energy by converting one type of matter, say gasoline, air and a spark, to another type of matter, like smog, and use some of that energy to annoy other people with powerful low-frequency sound vibrations coming out of the trunks of our cars. But if you could stand it long enough, you would be able to follow that car, collect all the smog, weigh it, and you would find the mass of smog was precisely equal to the combined masses of the gasoline and air wasted by the mobile “music lover” as they converted chemical energy into bad karma. Mass, a.k.a. ‘matter’, would have been preserved; energy would have been preserved. Of course, the usefulness and sanity of having a car with a full tank of gas would be converted into the useless insanity of, …(Hey! Turn down that noise! What? Why you little…! The thermodynamic term for that is ‘entropy’.) … but physically, matter would still be matter and energy would still be energy.

But doesn’t Einstein’s theory propose that it could be possible to rip all that useless, blinking, thumping hardware out of the offender’s car and completely vaporize it into a blinding flash of pure energy – the matter being totally eliminated – that could (in naive theory) be used for constructive purposes (Just think of it next time you are out driving — why, the possibilities are endless!)? The answer is a qualified, patronizing, “Yes,” and the qualification is, “it may be theoretically, but not practically, possible.”[2]


[1] Don Juan Manuel, Tales of Count Lucanor, 1335

[2] Max Jammer, Concepts of Mass in Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2000

The Myth of Matter, p. 1

This atom is mythical.

We might be pretty sure we know what the word ‘matter’ means– “anything that has mass and takes up space[1]. As children, we learn that matter can assume the forms of solid, liquid and gas while still maintaining its essential characteristics. If we so choose, we might learn about potential- and kinetic energy, crystallization, specific heat, plasticity, the combined gas law, …, and a whole bunch of other concepts intended to help us grapple with our material world.

A few of us decide to study science or technology. Whether or not by choice, these students experience concepts that substantially modify the meaning of the ‘m’-word. Uncertainty becomes a principle. Mass depends upon velocity, as does length. Laws of science give ground to theories of relativity.

A few of the few then choose a path leading them further away from the original ‘classical’ idea of what matter is. These few can either be technologists[2] (engineers) or aesthetes[3] (physicists). As they proceed along their courses of study, they begin to notice a disconnection between their “everyday experience” in the laboratory or the computer model and the everyday experiences of everyone else they used to know. At this point, differing ideas about “the substance of which we are all made”[4] creates a seemingly unbridgeable disparity between the minority specialists who deal more deeply with matter and the majority of us who merely live and move in it.

If you are a member of the “mere many” you might not even realize the depth and breadth of the gulf. As a hedge against this possibility, let us spend some time discussing concepts associated with ‘matter’. Realize that you will not know what the specialist knows, but you will at least know something about their knowledge.


[2] “A person who uses scientific knowledge to solve practical problems,” http://wordnet.princeton.edu

[3] “One who professes great sensitivity to the beauty of art and nature,” wordnet

[4] Wikipedia//Matter

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