Buffaloes, Electrons, and Metaphor in Science

In There Are No Electrons, Kenn Amdahl’s revisits the basic concepts that allow us to understand electricity – voltage, current, resistance, circuit – through a variety of stories that, at first glance, have little to do with electricity. Yet, once we move away from the images Amdahl puts in our mind, we can see how the technical concepts of voltage or current are no more than a way of condensing long, rich stories about a group of ants’ voyage around a fence into a single word. His tales about party-hard Greenies, restless buffaloes and drunk fishermen are stories of characters moving from one point to another, as well as accounts of the mechanisms make these characters go from A to B in a particular way. And what is the foundation of our understanding of electricity if not the idea that electrons (the dull shortcut for Greenies, or buffaloes) move from one place to another? Add some information about what makes them move, and about the things that make it easier or more difficult for them to do so, and you have the whole picture.

Beyond being a user-friendly and inventive exploration of electricity, Amdahl’s book also raises questions about the role of representation in science. Are all scientific concepts metaphors? Why do we prefer some metaphors over others? Why are we quick to let go of some, but it takes us so much time to embrace others? To what extent do we allow these metaphors to be ambiguous? Unfortunately, I do not have the answers to these questions. However, I think they are become more interesting as we move on to discuss schematics and the way we represent electrical concepts in a seemingly unambiguous, universally understood fashion. At this point, and as a little food for thought, I will go as far as to just propose yet another image:

The image above was inspired by the introduction to Kenn Amdahl’s There Are No Electrons and by René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images.