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Flickering Clusters

I thought about what was so special about water and how it moves. A fluid responds to pressures by constantly changing shape in the most supple, flowing manner; it is neither rigid and brittle like a solid, nor volatile and insubstantial like a gas. Where do these special properties come from? From the invisible molecular substrate, of course. As I pondered this, I recalled one of my favorite images and phrases from all of science—that of “flickering clusters.” This poetic little phrase encapsulates a well-known theory of water according to which H20 molecules continually make fleeting little associations, thanks to the very weak hydrogen bond that can form between the 0 of one and an H of another, if they happen to be passing close enough by each other (see Figure P-1). If the flickering-clusters model of water is correct (and when I last read about it, this was somewhat unclear), then all throughout every tiny droplet of water, trillions of complex, randomly-shaped clusters of H20 molecules are forming and then falling apart every microsecond, all completely silently and invisibly. And thanks to this fantastically unstable, dynamic, stochastic substrate, the familiar and utterly stable-seeming properties of wateriness emerge.

This image is ideal, I feel, for suggesting our philosophy, according to which the familiar and stable-seeming fluidlike properties of thought emerge as a statistical consequence of a myriad tiny, invisible, independent, subcognitive acts taking place in parallel. Concepts have this fluidity, and analogies are the quintessential manifestation of it.

—Douglas Hofstadter, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies

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