Episode 9Quiet Quandaries & Units of Measurement
00:00 / 21:58

Details and Transcript

References

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Transcript

To my marvellous family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the ninth episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

To show support if you like this sort of content, please make sure to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or whatever platform you are listening to this on, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, where I will be posting most of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. Remember that I will hold a draw for a surprise giveaway on the 10th and final episode of this season, so stay tuned for that.

 

Okay. Today’s episode addresses a commonly used expression that, ironically, also commonly does not want to be addressed in the first place.

 

Let’s set this story in motion: Due to your prestigious status in society and overall success in your life, you have been invited to the most renowned art gala on the planet. From Hollywood celebrities, to CEOs of business giants, to the highest level officials in global and national politics, your name made its way on the list. Congratulations!

 

You arrive at the evening art show in your stunning white limo, wearing your most beautiful piece of clothing and accessories. Even the building is an astounding piece of art: spotlights illuminating the immense Roman-like statues; delicate circular fountains spraying water and even fire in an elegant display of two classical elements; more flashes spark throughout the crowd, camera shutters clicking! to the arrival of attendees. You walk down the red carpet, posing every now and then among the backdrop of the architecture. You’ll be on the cover of tomorrow’s newspapers and magazines for sure.

 

You enter the gala and finally gaze about the room. It’s a large event room, containing the world’s most beloved works of art lining the walls and placed throughout the room’s centre. 

 

Along one side are the works of Pablo Picasso, the Casanova who popularized cubism, showcasing The Weeping Woman, Night Fishing at Antibes, and of course, Guernica, depicting the chaotic violence of the Spanish-Civil War in a monochromatic dream.

 

You suddenly hear the noise of what sounds like a trumpet. Confused, you look towards its source and notice a giant elephant in the middle of the room. Seemingly content with the constricting circumstances, you see the elephant is wearing a sort of serviette, or bib, around its neck. In front of it, a large dinner table set with a plate and silverware to scale. You ask the man beside you, “Excuse me, but what’s with the elephant in the room?”

 

“Oh, just one of the pieces of art on display,” he replies.

 

Satisfied, you move your gaze onto another wall that hung works of Hieronymous Bosch. His famous fanatical paintings of religion, life and hell enraptured the Dutch and later the world. Here, triptychs include The Martyrdom of St. Julia, The Last Judgement and, of course, The Garden of Earthly Delights, an absurd symbolic piece of the birth, temptation and damnation of mankind.

 

You hear more commotion towards the room’s middle and return your gaze to the elephant. This time, a large line of people seem to be entering the elephant’s cage. Strangely, these people are not guests to the event per se, but are wearing masks and dressed like that of widely known individuals, both past and present. You ask one of the servers who just offered you a glass of wine, “Excuse me, but what is that elephant in the room?”

 

“Oh, just a piece by an unknown British artist titled, -Definitely not legal-“, the server replies.

 

Satisfied, you look behind you to a wall dedicated to Andy Warhol, the American visual artist who spearheaded the pop art age. The trance-like evocation of his pieces include Campbell’s Soup Cans, Eight Elvises and of course, Marilyn Diptych, multiplying and juxtaposing Monroe’s advertisement of the 1953 film Niagara to her eventual death in 1962.

 

You cover your ears due to the sound of terrifying screams from the middle of the room. Again, you set your gaze on the elephant. The screams are coming from the first person in line, who had entered the cage, climbed onto the enormous table and sat on the elephant-sized dinner plate. The screams came from this poor person in which the elephant had begun eating. You realize this person was dressed up in a lab coat with large frizzled white hair, resembling what you believe to be Albert Einstein. No one in the crowd seems to bat an eye, or react at all to this scene. You turn to the woman beside you and ask, “Excuse me, but why is everyone just ignoring this elephant in the room? It seems to be eating a live person right in front of our very eyes!”

 

“Oh, that elephant? It’s just an art piece representing how humans hunt and poach rare, wild animals, like the African bush and forest elephants,” she replies.

 

You are unsure but somewhat satisfied. Staying focused on the middle of the room, surrounded by the world’s elites, are monumental pieces towering the crowd. You can make out a select few: a couple of China’s Terracotta Warriors, Rodin’s The Thinker, Alexandros’ Venus de Milo, and Michelangelo’s David. Such an incredible sight of beauty throughout this event room.

 

More bone-crushing screams direct your stare back to the elephant. Now several people have entered the cage and sat on the dinner plate, waiting to be eaten. There was a man in a black suit that looked like Martin Luther King Jr., another man in old English clothing resembling William Shakespeare, a woman in pilot gear representing Amelia Earhart, and another woman with two large Nobel Prize medals for Marie Curie. You finally head to the dynamic art piece and, standing at the front of the line featuring other influential people of history, shout at the crowd, “WHY IS EVERYONE IGNORING THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM?”

 

A man in line who looks like Edward Snowden says, “Oh, the elephant is just an art piece, it’s supposed to be uncomfortable.”

 

“But why don’t you want to talk about it?” you shout.

 

“Because we’re uncomfortable. We know what the art piece means, we can just think about it ourselves.”

 

Shocked, you storm out of the gala, uncomfortable with the whole situation, never to attend an elitist event again.

 

I might have lost myself in the storytelling with this one, but this expression is one of my favourites, as I’m a huge fan of speaking about societal taboos. But why do we specifically not address this particular, colossal creature?

 

What is the origin to the expression, “the elephant in the room”?

 

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Most of this information was obtained from many articles that discuss the various origin stories to this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

The Cambridge Dictionary describes the idiom “an elephant in the room” as an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about. To quote Wikipedia, “it is based on the idea [or] thought that something as conspicuous as an elephant can appear to be overlooked in a codified social interaction and that the sociology or repression also operates on the macro scale”. That last phenomenon on repression, essentially means that we transport certain things outside our consciousness and subdue them in our unconscious. It’s the uncomfortable feeling of telling a coworker that they have food in their teeth, or in a more complex scenario, determining when is the right time to talk to your close friend who you’ve seen spiral out of control due to an addiction.

 

That uncomfortable feeling usually stems from deviating from a societal order, regarding the interaction or circumstance that had just transpired, which caused embarrassment, controversy or lead to dangerous consequences. Question why an elephant is eating people at a renowned art gala? Uncomfortable, and maybe you just don’t get it. Mention to your colleague that they have food in their teeth? Uncomfortable, and maybe it’ll make things awkward for the rest of the break. Talk to your friend who is addicted to a dangerous drug? Uncomfortable, so maybe they’ll figure out for themselves that their addiction has taken control of their life.

 

The majestic mammal, at some point, became a symbol of ignorance, identifying a topic of conversation that people want to ignore. Take climate change. Coincidentally, this topic could be represented by an elephant, regarding habitat loss and the lack of available fresh water for these creatures due to changes in climate. Or take poverty. In 2006, the infamous English street artist Banksy organized a free show called “Barely Legal” in Los Angeles, containing a real elephant pained to match the wallpaper of the room it was placed, where actors would sit in the room and pretend not to notice it. The literal elephant in the room represented people’s choice to ignore uncomfortable topics of discussion, like poverty, and carry on with their lives.

 

There’s even promoted procedures in which help people confront “the elephant in the room”. inc.com suggests that “the way you respond to the elephant is a huge test of leadership”, with 7 recommended strategies: 1) Verify that it’s real. 2) Acknowledge its presence. 3) Consider the timing. 4) Make a plan. 5) Get to the heart of the matter. 6) Be mindful of emotions. And 7) Make room for communication. After considering all of these, surely your state of uncomfortableness would have subsided, which would allow you to address the looming “elephant in the room”, right?

 

Okay, let’s get back to the origin. A common origin to this idiom often referenced is a fable titled “The Inquisitive Man” by Ivan Andreevich Krylove. A man, among noticing various small details at a museum exhibit, fails to notice an elephant. Its story was often cited by other works of literature, such as in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons. However, this origin more signifies the inability to notice something obvious, rather than choosing to ignore something entirely. We want an origin to why an elephant placed in a room describes an ignored, uncomfortable topic.

 

Interestingly, there are different types of elephants placed in rooms that signify specific situations. Pink elephants in a room reference waking up to a hangover, often coinciding with alcoholics. Mark Twain’s famous Stolen White Elephant narrates a story of something too big yet impossible to find. So, not quite at the meaning we are looking for.

 

There is also another potential original meaning to the discussion of elephants in a room. The philosopher Harry Costello first used it in a 1935 essay stating “It is going beyond observation to assert there is not an elephant in the room, for I cannot observe what is not”. Perhaps he was referencing a known intellectual debate between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell about truly knowing whether there were no rhinoceroses in their room. Large mammals in a room, now we’re getting somewhere.

 

Other sources mention its first appearance in print, but there is even debate about this. Some credit the 1984 book “An elephant in the living room: A leader’s guide for helping children of alcoholics” by Marion Typpo and Jill Hastings (perhaps a double entendre, a phrase that can have two possible interpretations, or a good coincidence). 

 

KnowYourPhrase and Digital Polygot reference the Oxford English Dictionary, crediting the New York Times newspaper with the initial usage. In an article on June 20th, 1959, the simile was phrased as follows: “Financing schools has become a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.” It is possible that this statement references previous mentions of visualizing elephants in a room, or perhaps happened to be chosen coincidentally.

 

But that wasn’t when the expression first appeared in print. Bloomsbury International and Phrase Finder attribute this to The Charleston Gazzette, a West Virginian newspaper, who published the following statement in July of 1952: “Chicago, that’s an old Indian word meaning get that elephant out of your room.” Unfortunately, the author’s intentions were not known, but certainly not having to do with literal elephants, thus potentially alluding to the metaphoric meaning.

 

It therefore is the likely case that there were subtle changes in what an elephant in the room actually meant, from being something obvious that goes unnoticed unconsciously, to something physically absent but difficult to prove that it is truly not there, to finally the definitive usage of an elephant in a room being so big that you can’t (though better wording would have been shouldn’t) ignore it, referencing the New York Times article.

 

And that seems to be the most credible origin story to the meaning behind “the elephant in the room”. Likely referencing previous usage of others specifically choosing the elephant, but defining it as an uncomfortable topic that we choose to ignore.

 

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For the science part of this episode, I would like to highlight a particular scientific achievement discussed in a 2019 National Geographic article titled, “These are the top 20 scientific discoveries of the decade”. The link will be in the description.

 

There were 20 outstanding discoveries mentioned in this article ranging from the first detection of gravitational waves at the US Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (or LIGO), to the identification and utilization of the precise gene editing Crispr-Cas9 system, to big archeological studies uncovering, among other ancients, the body of King Richard the III, and more relevant, to the rapid development of an Ebola vaccine that saved countless lives during the outbreak in West Africa. These, and the many others, are interesting reads on their own that I would highly recommend to sift through. My interest lies in the last discovery mentioned in the article labeled, “Redefining the units of science”.

 

Let me ask you a question. You use specific units of measurement to define aspects of yourself, of your life, every single day. Whether that be your weight or mass (though these terms are different despite being used interchangeably), the distance to your favourite restaurant, the time it takes to complete a workout, or the temperature outside. But what really is a pound or kilogram? A mile or meter? An hour or second? And why do we have negative degrees when we can just have low numbers?

 

This segment will be a bit mathematically abstract but I still believe it encompasses the idea of true science communication. I will also only focus mainly on the one unit that was changed dramatically, but I’m open to discuss other units of measurement in the future. Now, we measure things based on specific numerical values which communicate useful information to us and allow us to effectively go about our day. These, or derivations of these, are called SI units (short for Systeme International d’unities). The important thing scientists require to do is define these numerical values so that people can properly use these to measure, things. For example, let’s say, for some evidence-backed reason at the time, a meter was defined as the length of a CRUNCH Chocolate Bar (one of my favourite chocolate bars by the way, also note this podcast is open to receive donations). Is the length of a chocolate bar a constant value? Of course not. Manufacturing will certainly churn out different sizes of chocolate bars, they also do not stay the same length at all temperatures, and they get oddly smaller every second whenever I’m in the room, in strange bite-sized pieces!

 

As mentioned in the article, written by Michael Greshko, “scientists have gradually redefined classic units in terms of universal constants”. One such example is the definition of a meter, described as of 1983 as the distance travelled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 seconds, or, around 300 millionths of a second. This fraction was chosen to ensure that our understanding of what a meter, prior to this definition, did not really change, but is now determined by a natural constant that will never change.

 

Back to the discovery, or moreso, the scientifically agreed upon modification. In a video by Veritasium creator Derek Muller, scientists discussed whether to change the definition of a kilogram from basing it on physical artifacts, to natural, numerical constants. Among improvements made to units for electrical current, the ampere, temperature, or the Kelvin, or the number of particles in a given substance, the mole, scientists changed the entire definition of a kilogram. Initially, one kilogram was defined as the mass of a specific platinum-iridium alloy kept in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris, France. Why this cylinder? Scientists believed that its mass would remain constant if stored in controlled climate conditions (in a bell jar underground, in a vault with limited access). Although that may be true in a general sense, and definitely better than a chocolate bar, in regards to having scientific accuracy, this is not a great basis for a SI unit definition. In fact, other exact replicas of this cylinder, in the exact same conditions, seem to have different masses to each other, and theirselves, when measured over time.

 

Okay, if I didn’t lose you yet let’s keep tinkering away at this. You might ask, well if we define one specific cylinder as 1 kilogram, then it will always be one kilogram no matter what, despite incredibly small changes. Therefore, whenever we want to measure the exact mass of something, we just have to determine how many of these cylinders it takes to equal the mass of that object, 3 cylinders would give an easy 3 kilograms, 1 and a half cylinders will give you 1 and a half kilograms. The problem, then, arises in terms of accessibility. Whenever you want to know the exact mass of something, which is the amount of matter something contains, different from the weight of something, which is just the force of gravity exerted on it, you need to compare it to something of a known amount of matter, which in this case is the cylinder. Everyone would have to line up and compare their objects to this cylinder to determine the true mass of their objects.

 

Therefore scientists changed the definition of a kilogram to universal constants. As of 2019, it is defined as Planck’s Constant, the numerical value that relates a particle of light (the photon) to its energy, divided by 6.62607015 x 10-34 m^2 per second. Ooph. This denominator, derived from the speed of light and setting the ironically error-prone Planck’s Constant to a truly fixed value, allows researchers around the world, who require incredibly precise measurements of mass, complete accessibility to making such measurements.

 

The discoveries of laws and constants that run our magnificent universe, and the sharing of these discoveries with billions of people around the world, this change and many of the other scientific landmarks mentioned truly mark the end of a fantastic decade. Whether we work in a lab, or use the technologies that were developed in a lab, to better our understanding and quality of life by defining the very units that describe it, it is amazing how far we’ve come and how much more we can communicate on the nature of reality.

 

And if you somehow made it this far, just think about it.

 

Thanks for listening to this episode of… Metaphorigins. Remember to rate and subscribe for more episodes and to follow the podcast on Instagram for updates on the next draw for a great, custom prize on my next episode. But until then, stay skeptical but curious.

 

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