Maidens and Other Marvels

Question: How is a spinning top like a virgin running a race (and what does either have to do with science)? Answer: Making the invisible visible often requires trading scientific language for more commonly understood comparisons.

Frontispiece of Michael Maier's Atalanta Fugiens

Michael Maier used the story of a maiden who refuses to marry unless her suitor beats her in a footrace as a metaphor for the behavior of matter. Photo by Gregory Tobias.

The language quantum mechanics uses to describe the forces inside and between atoms is incomprehensible to most people. Take magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a process many have heard of and possibly been subjected to, but whose particular actions only specialists in the field could describe. MRI creates images of the workings of a body’s insides, but understanding how it does so is nearly impossible without conjuring the familiar image of a spinning, wobbling top. The top illustrates the motion of an atom’s nucleus, which spins on an axis. In an external magnetic field this spinning nucleus precesses, gyrating on its axis just as a spinning top does under the influence of Earth’s gravitational field. In the human body the precession frequency depends on the location and chemical surroundings of the nucleus. The MRI process captures this information from the hydrogen nuclei in the body’s water molecules and, aided by powerful computer programs, turns that data into an image.

Another useful scientific metaphor is the maiden who won’t marry unless a suitor can beat her in a footrace. Simply put, this represents matter reluctant to combine and transform. In his 1618 book, Atalanta fugiens, natural philosopher Michael Maier employs the then well-known myth about the reluctant virgin Atalanta to show how the elusive goal of transforming matter can be attained. In the myth golden apples are used to distract the maiden, allowing one exceptional suitor, Hippomenes, to win the race and marry her. The golden apples represent a chemical catalyst, changing matter’s resistance to joining. Today chemists still refer to substances as “marrying” when they successfully combine, a metaphor carrying the optimistic connotation of a successful union—and a fruitful result.

We are accustomed to metaphor and analogy in art and literature, but science also employs such tools. Sometimes taking chemistry out of the lab and placing it in more familiar contexts allows the inexplicable to be understood.