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Psychosocial Implications of Stellar Evolution?

Reframing life's cycles through the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram (Part #1)


Introduction
Living in the light of stellar metaphors of brilliance
Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram as a generative metaphor
Stellar evolution as a generative metaphor
References

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Introduction

The suggestive use of metaphors -- like the "universe of knowledge", academic "stars", "luminaries" and "stellar" careers, "heated" debate, high "visibility", "massive" support, "weighty" argument -- points to the possible value of exploring whether astrophysics offers a coherent set of metaphors to explore various kinds of psychosocial life cycle.

Use is widely made of "brilliance", whether or not associated with "stellar" or "star" in some way. The implications are typically relatively simple -- as with recognition of celebrities with the phrase "a star is born", or with much admiration of the stars at night. The question here is whether the insights elaborated by astrophysics regarding the nature and life cycle of stars offer means of enriching their use as a metaphor. Cause for deeper reflection is the widely-cited quotation of astrophysicist Carl Sagan:

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.

As discussed separately (Generative metaphor and policy-making, 1995), in a key paper, Donald Schon (1979) argues that:

... the essential difficulties in social policy have more to do with problem setting than with problem solving, more to do with ways in which we frame the purposes to be achieved than with the selection of optimal means for achieving them." For Schön "the framing of problems often depends upon metaphors underlying the stories which generate problem setting and set the direction of problem solving. (Generative Metaphor: a perspective on problem-setting in social policy. In: A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought, 1979, pp. 254-284)

A "generative metaphor" offers figurative descriptions of social situations, usually implicit and even semi-conscious but that shape the way problems are tackled, for example seeing a troubled inner-city neighborhood as urban "blight" and, hence, taking steps rooted in the idea of disease. The approach has been developed by Frank J. Barrett and David L. Cooperrider (Generative Metaphor Intervention: a new approach for working with systems divided by conflict and caught in defensive perception, Appreciative Inquiry Commons, 2001).

A valuable summary of relevance to the following argument is offered by Jozef Keulartz (Using Metaphors in Restoring Nature, Nature and Culture, 2, 2007) of the European Network of Environmental Ethics:

Metaphors perform important cognitive functions, operating as mechanisms for the translation of something abstract into something concrete and shedding light on new and unknown phenomena through familiar ones. In short, metaphors are heuristic devices crucial for creating and conceptualizing novel ideas and new knowledge. However, metaphors are not only important cognitive tools in making sense of the world but also important discursive tools that enable communication and negotiation with others throughout the world. Metaphors then are also diplomatic devices that facilitate interaction between different disciplines and discourses (Hellsten 2002)....

Once it is acknowledged that the use of metaphor is inescapable and indispensable, however, we are confronted with the problem of the sheer multiplicity of metaphors. With respect to nature, Daniel J. Philippon (2004) has provided us with an extensive, although not exhaustive, list of metaphors for nature. Nature can be compared to a particular place (frontier, garden, park, wilderness, utopia), to a friend or family member (self, mother, father, sister, brother, wife, husband, partner), an actor (god or goddess, minister, monarch, lawyer, selective breeder, enemy), a network (web, community, tapestry), a machine (clock, engine, computer, spaceship), a state of being (virgin, harmony, balance), a mode of communication (book), a built object (bank, sink,storehouse, pharmacy, lifeboat, home), or to a contested landscape (battlefield, commons) (Philippon, 2004; see Harré et al., 1999)....

Taken together, the cognitive, discursive, and normative functions of metaphors determine our attitude towards entities in the world. Thus, for example, people who see nature as a divine text will be more likely to adopt a passive rather than an active attitude towards nature, while those who look at nature as a machine might stress our possibilities to control, command, and correct nature.

The approach taken here is first to note some distinct domains in which "brilliance" is recognized. Some have been explored in other documents on this site, as noted below (whose arguments have been partially reassembled here for convenience). The argument then introduces the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. This is a basic mapping of the life cycle of stars, including their eventual demise. Commentary is then provided below on some details of this "map", and the variety of stars -- represented at different stage there during the course of stellar evolution.

The commentary itself is only presented in terms of the life cycle of communities as but one of the domains in which "brilliance" may be recognized and appreciated. The metaphor is explored there in italicized text to accompany the conventional description of the astrophysical case. With respect to other domains, that italicized description then needs to be interpreted in terms of the nature of those domains -- as suggested by the preceding references to them.


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