From intriguing to misleading: The ambivalent role of metaphor in modern astrophysical and cosmological terminology
While metaphor has long been shown to pervade scientific discourse and terminology, little is known about how it affects the human comprehension of abstract concepts and underpins further development of related scientific ideas. In this article we focus on seven established terms in astrophysics and cosmology, which have also become staples of popular science, namely “big bang”, “wormhole”, “black hole”, “spaghettification”, “gravitational hair”, “fuzzball”, and “string” (in the context of string theory). We carry out etymological and contextual analysis to find out the specifics of their use in specialized and popular literature, with a particular emphasis on personification of physical entities. Also, we apply the conceptual metaphor theory to compare their source domain and target domains, identifying potentially misleading discrepancies between the two. We reveal that most of these metaphorical nominalizations invoke inaccurate and largely distorted images of the referenced entities, which are further extended and amplified with new details in scientific popularizations. We suggest that more research is needed into metaphorical terms in different disciplines to better understand their implications for the development of both expert and lay knowledge of the subject.
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