Category Archives: Language

Schrödinger’s Lie: A quantum leap in understanding metaphors

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Sex, Lies, and Power

When I was a graduate student, and later, teaching, at a Great East Coast University*, one of my adivsors was the famous Irven DeVore. We taught a very large introductory biology class nicknamed “Sex” but also known as “Human Behavioral Biology,” or, in the school’s tradition of naming all important courses after World War II bombers, “B-29.”

The fact was not lost on DeVore that we intended to enthrall, or at least, lock in the room four times a week, batches of 500 or so individuals who were training up to grasp in their hot little hands the very levers of power. Our job was to teach them what human behavior was all about. Clearly, that was an awesome task. And, DeVore reckoned that the best way to responsibly carry out this task was to inform the students what was actually going on, so they would be less likely to miss the point.

“You are all destine to eventually grasp the very levers of power,” he would tell them. “And here, we are undertaking the awesome task of learning about human behavior. During this course, there will be occasions when we will simplify the subject matter, in order to make important points. In effect, we’ll tell the occasional white lie to arrive eventually at a greater truth.”

There would be a pause.

“It is not lost on me and should not be on you, that now and then we are casting false pearls before real swine.”

Another pause. One in 15 students would then giggle. A different 1 in fifteen students would sneer. The rest would not emote, but they would dutifully write down the words.

What’s a meta for, anyway?

After my own fledging as a tosser of pearls, I departed from DeVore’s philosophy. I replaced white lies with truthful placeholders. Instead of “All genes code for proteins,” it would be “All proteins are coded for by genes, and that is the job of many but not all genes.” That was an easy one, and the placeholder there is the implication that there are other genes that do other things. A more difficult case might be “On balance, wealthy individuals have more offspring than poor ones, but half the time you measure this it will seem untrue. But, most of those times, you are measuring it wrong, and you can learn all about that in a 3000 level course we offer on Thursday afternoons.”

A white lie, in education, is a simplification that is demonstrably untrue, but used in cases where getting at the full truth involves more advanced material than appropriate for the course, or in some cases, just takes up too much time and doesn’t get you much in return.

In a sense, analogies are white lies, but with an even higher purpose.

The reason to analogize, or create a metaphor, is not to gloss over details, but rather, to bring the conversation to a more advanced understanding of something. A good metaphor causes an “aha” moment and a nudging of thinking in the direction of truth. It is not explicitly a lie, but an analogy is always in fact part lie. Usually the lies stay in the background and can be ignored, but if a given analogy is worked too long or too hard, you can almost never avoid stumbling over them.

For example, varying amounts of water running through pipes of varying sizes at varying speeds is a very good analogy for electricity when you are teaching the very basics of voltage and amperage. But this metaphor breaks the moment you realize that electricity doesn’t really slow down or speed up like water does. It breaks even more when you realize that alternating current lives outside the wire (pipe) a good bit of the time, and can actually be transmitted across vast distance of space and then picked up by another wire. Your lawn sprinkler is not a great analogy for a radio.

This aspect of analogies is often lost, perhaps sometimes willfully, though I think usually unconsciously, and can lead to arguments. This is not an uncommon way people are either wrong on the internet, or we identify wrongness in others. Or, inappropriately accuse others of being wrong.

Quantum Leap

I find this more often true in the physical sciences. For example, the use of the “quantum leap” as a metaphor is considered by most unacceptable. In physics, at the quantum level (at a very very small scale), it turns out that things (matter/energy, or particle/wave doohickeys) can not move through space or time, or energy levels, at just any old increment. There is a minimum. (See Planck’s Constant.) It is almost like everything exists in a giant four dimensional egg carton (the three dimensions of space, and a fourth of time) and everything is an egg that has to go in one of the spots eggs go in, never in between.**

In this world, the term “quantum leap” would simply mean the egg goes from one egg holding space to another, with absolutely no inbetweenness happening.

In the metaphorical use, a quantum leap means you go from one place or state to another without any inbetweenness. In some remote areas of the world where even today roads are not built, local transport was always on foot, then suddenly, it could be via bush plane. More specifically, the movement of important people or highly valuable goods went from walking to flying. That is a quantum leap in transportation.

In the TV show Quantum Leap, scientist Sam Beckett intends to “leap” across time using a fancy machine. Things go differently than planned, and one of the things that ends up happening is that he leaps across space and time but also into different individuals (I think, I never watched the show). People, especially physicists, complain about this use of the phrase “quantum leap” because a true quantum phenomenon is a quantum phenomenon because it is happening at this very very small scale where space, time, and energy increments are at the absolute minimum.

However, it is not a mistake to use the quantum metaphor for this TV show. The leap is there. The leap without the inbetween is a feature of the story. At quantum size scales, everything leaps. Here, the metaphor is used to refer to that same sort of leaping, also known as saltation.

If you think the metaphor is only correct if it is applied to objects with particle-wave duality and at scales where the you can see and feel Planck’s length, then maybe you don’t know what a metaphor is.

A Metaphor is like a your checklist of things to fix in your house this weekend. Not completely checked off.

Think of a metaphor as a list of attributes. Like this:

  • It is very small, at size scales of 6.4 X 10-34 or so.
  • Things go across space in increments of that unit size, not continuously.
  • Things go across time in increments, not continuously.
  • Things go across energy levels in increments, not continuously.

Then, you check off one item on that list, maybe two, because you are using those attributes in your sentence. Sam Beckett leaps across time and space, he does not glide gracefully through time and space like the rest of us. That sort of thing.

If, at the end of your sentence, you’ve found that you have checked off all of the attributes, and if your attribute list is pretty complete, then you have not invoked a metaphor. You have merely stated a truth. You are not using features of a thing to expound about another thing. You have simply expounded about a thing, remaining in a single meaning-generating dimension. Your metaphor has collapsed on itself and become itself. You said nothing interesting. You might make a good Wikipedia writer.

A fact used in a metaphor is like Schrödinger’s cat. You never know if it is real or not real until you use it. Then, it is either a bit of truth because that part of the metaphor is transferred between the frame of the metaphor and the frame of the object of discussion, or it is a bit of a lie because it is the part of the frame of the metaphor that you are leaving behind.

In the case of Sam Beckett, the nano-nano scale of quantum mechanics is not a feature of the TV show’s main character. His saltational behavior is. He leaps, quantumly, across time and space.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, when Schrödinger originally invoked his his famous dead-not-dead cat, he did so to underscore the abject absurdity of certain aspects of quantum mechanics. Others took this absurd joke and ran with it, asserting that it was part of actual reality, not a joke about reality. This is a case where a metaphor has bitten the writer in the ass, and so, it is appropriate that it is a cat because they are capable of biting in both real and metaphorical worlds. Also, note that Planck’s constant was originally conceived as a white lie as well, a kludge to help make the math work. Later, Planck and others realized that the apparent mathematical necessity of rounding everything off to an interval worked to solve matter-energy problems at that level not because it was a cute trick of math, but because it was a deep truth of reality. That is a little like deciding to count all your expenses and income in sums ending in two, and suddenly all the money in your wallet has become two dollar bills. Since two dollar bill is a metaphor, that leaves you with a pocket full of metaphors.


*Which shall be unnamed, because when I tell people I went to Harvard, they get mad at me, presumably, because they did not.

**Don’t take my description of quantum mechanics to the bank. But that’s roughly my understanding.


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Language Rules

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That title is ambiguous but only if one admits to vernacular usage. Which is legit.

Huxley is consonantly making grammatical errors that primarily serve to prove how stupid adults are. English has a typical way of marking past tense, for instance, and he uses it all the time, correctly. So he might have hided himself behind the couch. Or, so he sayed. I see-ed him in the bedroom so maybe he hided himself there.

The thing is, we have language rules that are based on nothing more than historical quirkiness and BS, and language rules that are based on the particular system a language morphology and grammar which tend to make sense (within a given language). Within a language, we call “standard” things that have been determined standard by convention, irrespective of how different those things are from the underlying morphology and grammar of the the language. (Between languages we may refer to the quirks as idiomatic when they are not standard.) Language Mavens are specialized humans who have learned most of the standard rules and their purpose is to annoy everyone else by constantly correcting them. Sometime language mavens demonstrate rule breaking by verbal self immolation, especially when things get really bad like when someone confuses “its” and “it’s.”

“Oh my god it drives me CRAZY when someone gets that wrong. I can’t STAND IT!!!” they will say.

I assume that such comments are followed quickly by some sort of suicidal act because, after all, how can one live in a world where possession is indicated in a standard way that people often get wrong to make it look like pluralization, but for the exceptions where one is supposed to make a possessive look like a plural because the contractions are stepping all over the rule of possessives!

Its hard, life is.

Anyway yesterday was international grammar day or some other such nonsense, and as a result someone wrote a post with a list of things people have been yelling at you about your whole life but it turns out you were getting right anyway. It is here.


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Signs will be in both native and immigrant’s languages in northern Minnesota

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Apropos recent discussion on Native American issues in Minnesota, we have this from MinnPost:

Tourists visiting Bemidji this summer may pick up a few words of a “foreign” language.

That’s because the first city on the Mississippi River way north in Minnesota may be the only town off a reservation trying to incorporate the area’s indigenous Ojibwe language into daily life.

All over town Ojibwe language signs are posted right alongside English language labels, and for a just cause. The signage is part of a broader effort to preserve the language spoken by an estimated 60,000 persons across areas of the northern United States and into Canada as well as to bridge cultural divides between whites and American Indians.

Words such as “boozhoo,’’ an Ojibwe word for “welcome” and many other Native American terms crop up around town, in an appliance store, the local hospital, the convention center, a local coffee shop, and this spring in the public schools. …


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How to learn language

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How to learn language

Me: “Huxley, this is your milk. I’m going to drink it myself!”

Huxley: “I’m going to drink it ME-self!”

Me: “What?”

Huxley: “I’m going to drink it I-self!”

Me: “Huh?”

Huxley: “I’m going to drink it Huxley-self!”

Me: “Oh, OK, here’s your milk!”


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Counting Chinese Words

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It has been said that “word frequency” is the most important variable in language research, despite the belief by many that it can’t be used as a variable because no one really knows what a word is. (see: Minifalsehood: We can’t tell what a word is!?!? and A run in my stocking …)

A recent study in PLoS looks at a heretofore under investigated area, word/character use in Chinese.

Continue reading Counting Chinese Words


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