Monday, June 1, 2009

Loose language

A moment ago, in the French press, I jumped to a one-word headline: Earthquake. I imagined immediately that the ground had probably shaken once again in Italy. No, a dull journalist had simply drawn this term out of his empty head in an article on yesterday's unexpected grounding of Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros.

Back in the old days, when writers could throw in expressions from the Bible or great authors such as Shakespeare, they were on firm ground. No reader is going to raise questions about the veracity of dust to dust, ashes to ashes, say, or to be or not to be. But nowadays, with culture and language permeated by science, it can be difficult for a journalist to keep his head above water.

Among the greatly misused scientific metaphors, I would say that "Big Bang" deserves first prize. When the English astronomer Fred Hoyle invented the expression in connection with a cosmological theory with which he himself did not agree, he needed a name for an absolutely unique "event" that was totally unlike anything that had ever happened before... since nothing had ever happened "before", because there could be no "before" with respect to this weird happening. The cosmological Big Bang wasn't in any way whatsoever an explosion, so it didn't really "bang". Besides, it wasn't big at all. At the singular instant zero, the so-called ylem—or primordial egg out of which our cosmos was about to spring—was unimaginably tiny and unimaginably dense. Consequently, it's silly to hear journalists evoking latter-day "big bangs" in domains such as economics and politics. Such usage is more than a matter of using bad metaphors; it's an insult to wisdom.

In the same domain, most metaphorical uses of "black hole" evoke what the French refer to as a Turkish toilet: the sort of place where you must be careful not to drop your car keys, otherwise you'll be hitching a ride home. In reality (if we can talk realistically about black holes), they're a far more subtle cosmological concept than a kind of giant sewage tank in the heavens.

One of the silliest metaphorical blunders from a scientific viewpoint consists of using "quantum leap" to designate something akin to Zorro and his steed jumping over the Niagara Falls. In formulating the theory that electromagnetic radiation was quantized into discrete chunks, Max Planck calculated that the energy associated with an electron when it performs a quantum leap from one orbiting shell in an atom to another is infinitesimally small. Not nearly enough energy to prevent a tennis ball from leaping onto the wrong side of the line. Let's hope, in any case, that the psychological shock of yesterday's big bang at Roland-Garros doesn't drag Rafael Nadal into a black hole of despair.

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