I adore the name we’ve given our galaxy. The Milky Way—so delicious! It escaped the strange titles given to our near neighbors like Andromeda, Triangulum, and the ever-romantic Large Magellanic Cloud. Milky Way is much more homey. It’s very pastoral, the sort of name you’d expect for a meandering country lane that runs between the co-op creamery and the local dairy farms. It’s also what we’ve called our galaxy for thousands of years. Indeed, it’s inherent in the very word “galaxy,” which was coined in ancient Greece and spelled γαλαξίας: gamma, alpha, lambda, alpha, xi, iota, alpha, sigma; galaxias. This is derived from the root word γάλα, gala, milk. So this is how we, as meager earthlings, can begin to make sense of the great cosmic swirling mass of stars 193.1 quadrillion times the mass of our own planet—by expressing it in terms of a streak of milk against the nighttime sky. There’s something incredibly humble and human about that.
Humans are always expressing meaning through metaphor, to simplify complexities otherwise impossible for any but the experts to understand. Such everyday figurative language fills our lexicon. Computing, as you might expect, is a field full of these metaphors. You probably enlisted the aid of a mouse to get to this page—not a furry rodent, but a sophisticated piece of computer hardware that makes up part of the human-machine interface. You might be thinking of this website as a page, but it’s really data rendered to your screen in an array of lighted pixels, and it’s unlike anything you’d find in a book. We talk about going to web sites, as if they were locations to explore, even though the data really is being sent to us while we sit still. People might call this surfing the net, but it’s not at all like what they do on the beaches of California. There’s simply no way to understand things as complex as a virtual world comprised of nothing but electrons, except to make metaphors and draw analogies.
On one hand, I think this aspect of human thought and language reveals the limit to our status as “intelligent” beings. To understand anything even remotely outside our normal experiences, we have to resort to this childlike and rather innocent scheme of naming things after what we’re familiar with. It shows how, for all our modern scientific arrogance, we still understand very little of the world for what it really is.
Simultaneously, however, it is a tremendous asset that we can just reuse simple ideas to conceptualize about complicated things that would, otherwise, remain forever outside our grasp. This capacity is in fact the very root of our intelligence and the very mechanism of language. Once we know a little, we can learn things not by what they are, but simply by what they’re like—and thus, from our own experiences, we can build a mental model of the universe that allows us to do very real things, from the everyday experience of empathizing with another’s thoughts to the very complex operation of sending telescopes to space to better understand the galaxy, our Milky Way. We do this all by using analogical frames of reference. We do it all by speaking, and thinking, in metaphors.