THE COLOR OF QUARKS
AN ESSAY ON THE METAPHORS OF MODERN PHYSICS
In 1963, when American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was to propose a name for a material constituent yet to be discovered, he started with a sound. The sound he had in mind was something like /’kwɔrk/, mainly because it didn’t mean anything and would therefore never become obsolete. He was conscious of the tendency that Greek and Latin terms often falls short in aptness due to scientific progress, as with the case of proton, meaning first, or atom, meaning indivisible. These terms remain in use although their etymological derivation now seems quite contradictory. Gell-Mann was intent to avoid such loss of meaning by inventing an everlasting term. But he wasn’t sure how to spell it. Then, while leafing through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake he came across the word quark in a phrase, and decided to use that spelling.
Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.
But O, Wreneagle Almighty, wouldn’t un be a sky of a lark
To see that old buzzard whooping about for uns shirt in the dark
And he hunting round for uns speckled trousers around by Palmer-stown Park?
Hohohoho, moulty Mark!
Five years later the quarks were detected at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, a breakthrough for which Gell-Mann was later awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Now neutrons and protons were no longer the elementary building blocks of nature, as physicists had previously thought them to be. After the name was coined from what is arguably one of the most metaphorical and experimental of literary works, the quarks have been assigned different properties referred to as colors and flavors.[*] These arbitrary assets function as analogies resting solely on a tenuous correspondence to taste and visual light. But how are the quark and its quirkily-named properties more real than figurative? They are permanently “locked” inside the particles that they constitute, impossible to observe in the “real” or “literal” world. Are physicists, in applying these bold terms, oblivious to their own creative acts?
The Color of Quarks is the name of an ongoing sound project due to be exhibited in 2016. This essay is an extension of that work, following its narrative and protracting its arguments. Like the audible piece, it sets as its objective to map out a mental landscape of which science and poetry, logic and creativity, rationality and imagination, constitute equally significant parts. As an approach to apprehending the language and imagery employed in modern physics, I will explore the functions and mechanisms of the metaphor as it manifests itself in various discourses, drawing on ideas proposed by physicists, linguists and philosophers alike.
[*] Although the color-charge property is an arbitrary name, it does function as an apt metaphor. Just as the three primary colors, red, green and blue, combine to make white light, the three colors of quarks combine to make a “colorless” particle. From a distance, the positive and negative charges of the quarks appear to cancel, and the atom looks neutral. It is only when you probe deeply into the atom that you discover the charged particles inside. Similarly, visual light appears white or “neutral” from a distance (Oerter, 2006, p. 173).
BETWEEN LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT
What is the essential attribute of the metaphor?[*] There is no obvious answer to this, nor any clear-cut definition of the term. Rather, different definitions may be given dependent on the linguistic entity chosen for consideration: the word, the sentence or the discourse. In classical rhetoric, the metaphor takes the word as its unit of reference. Viewed in this manner, the metaphor is situated among the single-word expressions of speech, and is merely studied as a trope of resemblance. Viewed as figure, as was generally the case in the early discipline of poetics, the metaphor constitutes a displacement and also an extension of the meaning of several words, and its significance is grounded in the act of substitution. In The Rule of Metaphor, a book consisting of eight interrelated studies on the metaphor, Paul Ricoeur examines the progression of the term from one discipline to the other: from classical rhetoric, through semiotics and semantics, finally reaching hermeneutics. Each of these studies develops one specific approach for investigating the metaphor, and jointly they provide an extensive insight into how the term has been understood throughout history.
[*] From Greek metaphorá “a transfer”, especially of the sense of one word to a different word, literally “a carrying over”, from metapherein “transfer, carry over; change, alter; to use a word in a strange sense”, from meta “over, across” + pherein “to carry, bear”.
Aristotle was the first thinker to methodically conceptualize the metaphor, and his definition emerged at the crossroads between the fields of rhetoric and poetics; for him, the metaphor has one foot in each of these domains. Rhetoric is a discipline as old as philosophy itself, and according to Ricoeur, it is philosophy’s oldest enemy and also its oldest ally. The tension of the relationship occurs in the confrontation between the art of saying it well and the virtue of speaking the truth. For Aristotle, rhetoric employs language as a weapon of persuasion, and the metaphorical trickery in particular, gives the speaker power to manipulate words apart from things. On the contrary, poetics, understood by Aristotle as the theory of composing dramatic, lyric or epic literature, did not depend on language in the persuasive sense. The poet does not seek to prove anything. Rather, the poetic project has s a mimetic[*] nature, in which the poet attempts to imitate or cultivate a re-presentation of human actions or emotions, by telling the truth through fiction. Since Aristotle’s metaphor belongs to both of these domains, Ricoeur views it as a unique structure, made up by two distinct functions: one rhetorical and the other poetic.
Aristotle’s definition of the metaphor is formulated through several separate, albeit overlapping, characteristics. The first feature is that metaphor is something that happens to the noun. This is a definition founded on the basis of the single word, and not the discourse, as its basic unit. That way the metaphor could be studied as an extensive phenomenon applicable to poetics as well as rhetoric or any other discipline. This single-world orientation was to stand the test of time, in effect persisting the entire subsequent history of Western thought. But certainly, as I will demonstrate throughout this essay, this narrow outlook carries a high price; partly by ignoring how discursive features can shape the very constitution of metaphorical expressions, and more radically because it confines the concept of the metaphor solely to the department of language.
The second characteristic that Aristotle highlights is that metaphor is defined in terms of movement. For him, the metaphorical concept applies to every transposition of terms. He connects the very word to the notion of epiphorá, meaning bringing upon. The epiphora of a word is described as a sort of displacement – a movement from … to… As Ricoeur also points out, it is interesting to note that Aristotle, in explaining the metaphor, creates his own metaphor borrowed from the realm of movement: phora, a kind of change with respect to location. Aristotle would probably not have complied with the word metaphor itselfbeing metaphorical, because it is borrowed from a department other than that of language. Implicit in his theory we can thus identify several preconceived notions: that the metaphor is a movement that only happens in language, that it operates as a kind of borrowing where the borrowed meaning is opposed to some proper or original meaning, and that one resorts to such borrowing in order to fill a semantic void. As we will see, none of these conceptions are as categorically pronounced today as they once were. The metaphorical movement is no longer understood only in terms of borrowing, nor is it studied exclusively as a linguistic phenomenon.
As a third feature, Aristotle suggests that the metaphor is a transposition of a name that he calls alien (allotrios)[*], which is a name that belongs to something else. This is opposed to an original or current name(kurion)[*], which he defines as being in general use in a country. In other words, the metaphor is defined in terms of deviation from something better known. According to Aristotle, the metaphor has qualities of the exotic, but at the same time we recognize that the strangeness or foreignness is imposed on us from “the outside” of regular language. In effect, the metaphorical word takes the place of a non-metaphorical word that could have been used and, according to Ricoeur, becomes doubly alien: as a present but borrowed word and as a substitute for an absent word. This seems to imply that the metaphor must always be linked to the substitution of a non-metaphor, and Ricoeur indicates that Aristotle himself must have been confused at this point. However, on one occasion he does cite a case in which no current word exists that could substitute the metaphorical word, through the expression sowing around a god-created flame. Following a system of metaphorical proportion: B is to A what D is to C, the action of the sun is to light what sowing is to grain. But there was no name, at least not in ancient Greek, for this action in which the sun sheds its light, so the metaphor came into existence in order to fill a semantic lacuna. These are exactly the kinds of metaphors that occur more often in modern physics than ever before. I will examine them from several perspectives, not solely as symbolic fillers, but as creative constructs, or figments of mind.
[*] From Greek mīmētikós “imitative, good at imitating”, from mimetos, verbal adjective of mimeisthai “to imitate”.
[*] From Greek allotrios“belonging to another person, belonging to others”, “foreign, strange”.
[*] From Greek kurion “properly”, from kurios “he to whom a person of thing belongs”.
PHYSICS AS METAPHOR
Metaphors operate at every level of physics. Popularly they are used as a transfer of meaning, suggesting a likeness between two different things by applying the term for one also to the other. This pedagogical act is often conducted on the single-word scale, replacing a lesser-known word with a better known, in accordance with how Aristotle originally conceptualized the metaphor. Here, however, the metaphor is no longer situated in the alien word, but in the familiar one. In order to convey increasingly abstract scientific ideas widely, the act of substitution now takes the new concept and replace it with an older and more established one. The single-word metaphor functions as a reduction, filtering out the deviation between foreign and familiar concepts. But modern physics also exhibits a more active character of metaphor than the comparative quality: an evocation of the inner connection between things, an awareness of duality and a semblance of the two different senses as one. In these terms metaphor can be viewed extendedly as an act of consciousness that hints at the very creation of things, blurring the division between them and even between them and their names. I argue that this power manifests itself more evidently in particle physics than in any other discipline. This is because the components in question are pure mathematical abstractions, often bearing no resemblance to any entity from the large world of our senses. The metaphors of modern physics have become inseparable from their referents, and to conceive their true significance we should look at how they shape theories, not only how the theories shape them.
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