Search this Site:

News latest


Quantum provides us with a striking illustration of the fact that though we can fully understand a connection … we can only speak of it in images and parables. We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.

Niels Bohr

In conversation during first meeting with Werner Heisenberg (summer 1920), as quoted in Werner Heisenberg and Arnold J. Pomerans (trans.), Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (1971),

All metaphor breaks down somewhere. That is the beauty of it. It is touch and go with the metaphor, and until you have lived with it long enough you don’t know when it is going. You don’t know how much you can get out of it and when it will cease to yield. It is a very living thing. It is as life itself.  “Education by Poetry” Robert Frost,  1931.

Why can’t they just say what they mean? Tiffinians on poets, every single day.

Last week I put up a garden shed; nothing fancy, you understand, just your common or garden garden shed.  Whilst thinking on the various bits and bobs required to put up the thing, I also found myself musing on the relationship between context, truth and meaning. Tending to the garden can do that to a person.

Let me explain.

As with everything else you would care to mention, when it comes to shed building, I am no expert, but I what I did know was that I would first need to locate a piece of flat ground.  It struck me that in my search for a piece of flat ground I did not need to take into account (look away flerfers) the fact that the Earth is actually curved. That would have been silly. But if I then extrapolated from the flat piece of ground under my shed to the conclusion that the rest of the Earth is also flat, I would be deeply deluded about the nature of the Earth and equally silly.

For the purposes of garden DIY it is quite useful to forget parts of the context.  The point is that when you forget those elements of the context they don’t become untrue. It is therefore a mistake to think that we can upscale whatever is the case in a smaller context and say that it is therefore the case in the bigger context.  Or indeed, the other way around, as Niels Bohr and his chums found. Of course, as long as we remember the parts we are forgetting, it can be very useful to forget.  Especially if you’re erecting a shed, or indeed ‘doing science’, as they say.

This gets us to the limitations of the mechanistic view of…well…everything really.  Yes, even mechanisms.

Let me explain.

As I may have mentioned before, the idea that everything is to be best understood best as some kind of mechanism is dreadfully wrong.  As a metaphor, it breaks down all over the place.  Of course it works to convey a great deal of helpful understanding but not in all contexts.  Especially the really interesting ones.

Let’s take physics for example, pace all those still reading who know much more about physics than the Director (e.g. you), but here goes.  So, at some point, the physics community discovered, by going from the macro all the way down to the micro and pushing this mechanical conception to the limit, that it breaks down.  No surprises there, as Robert Frost noted,  “All metaphor breaks down somewhere.”  So our physicist chums similarly noted that at some point, the mechanical conception of the way things are, gives way to something else.  Something that does not work like a machine.

Great figures such as Bohr, Schrodinger and Heisenberg realised that this posed an enormous challenge to the mechanistic conception itself and I think these are weighty chums to have in the business of understanding.

So it turns out that the way you find out about something is not simply to take it apart, it couldn’t be because, when you get right down to it (technical expression) the world is not made up of discrete bits of lumpen matter at all. And nothing is ever completely distinct from anything else.

As I try to impress on my students all the time, it is crucially important to rethink the metaphors we live by and unearth the assumptions that we take as granted and re-examine them.  Sadly the metaphor that the world and everything in it is a machine, running according to predictable rules, is a hard one to shake. As well as being a fairly dangerous metaphor to live by.

Let’s take music for example, pace all those still reading who know much more about music than the Director (e.g. you), but here goes. Now if we take music apart we get phrases, and if we keep going down that path we will finally get to individual notes. So now we can definitively affirm that music is made of notes.  Take a bow everyone.

And of course once we know what a note is we can now work out what music is, can’t we?


A note is a meaningless sound. But if you put thousands and thousands and thousands of notes together you can get Mozart’s String Quintet No.4 in G minor which is precisely not a meaningless sound.

Now how does that happen? The meaning can’t be in the notes because one note means nothing, two notes mean nothing, three notes mean nothing and presumably therefore thirty five thousand notes mean nothing. So it must be in something else. What else is there? Well the only other things there in music are the gaps. In other words, the silence in the gaps between the notes and the melody, the gaps between the notes in the harmony as they occur at the same time and the ictus or rhythm of the way in which the piece moves.

But of course silence on its own doesn’t mean anything either.  So music is a lovely example of a gestalt and to me a much better metaphor of what the world is.  Things, if indeed there are things, are much more than the sum of their parts.  Try telling that to someone in love with sums.

Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that music is only understood in an active encounter with a process, not a machine.  And so is everything else.  Including you.

Neils Bohr was right about the need to use metaphors. But of course, all language is metaphorical, including the language of science. When you think about it, all those technical terms are derived from everyday physical experiences if you look at them etymologically, so everything comes back to being metaphor.

The metaphor is not a strange case of the literal but the literal is a limit case of the metaphor. If our poetry reading Tiffinians could grasp that, we’d be home and dry.

Here’s Bob Frost again on the metaphor of the machine breaking down live:

Somebody said to me a little while ago, “It is easy enough for me to think of the universe as a machine, as a mechanism.”

I said, “You mean the universe is like a machine?”

He said, “No. I think it is one . . . Well, it is like . . .”

“I think you mean the universe is like a machine.”

“All right. Let it go at that.”

I asked him, “Did you ever see a machine without a pedal for the foot, or a lever for the hand, or a button for the finger?”

He said, “No—no.”

I said, “All right. Is the universe like that?”

And he said, “No. I mean it is like a machine, only . . .”

“. . . it is different from a machine,” I said.

E M Forster wrote a wonderfully prescient story first published in 1909, called The Machine Stops.  I recommend it.  He knew a thing or two.

When the machine stops, as it inevitably will, because all machines break down eventually, let us take a moment to tend our gardens with better and better metaphors.

Until next time, Happy Reading/Tending your garden!

Director’s Tip #6 

Tired of your bookmarks falling out?

Hair clips make great bookmarks!