Genomic heteroglossia

« previous post | next post »

In "Snowclones are the dark matter of journalism", 1/24/2004, I noted the spread of the phrasal template X is the dark matter of Y: "The PC is the Dark Matter of the Internet", "Global technoscience is the dark matter of social theory", "Networking is the dark matter of high-speed internet", "Terrorism is the dark matter of the civilized world", "The extraterrestrial hypothesis is the dark matter of political science and science policy in the second half of the twentieth century", "Euroscepticism is the 'dark matter' of German politics", "the Boswell Co. now stands revealed for what it is: the dark matter of 20th century California history", "Intellectual property is the “dark matter” of the corporate universe".

A search today, almost seven years later, would turn up many more: "Untested code is the dark matter of software", "Influence is the Dark Matter of the Social Media Universe", "Organized crime is the dark matter of Ohio politics", and so on. And just this morning, I learned that dark matter has at least one scientific sense outside of physics.

According to Philipp Kapranov et al., "The majority of total nuclear-encoded non-ribosomal RNA in a human cell is 'dark matter' un-annotated RNA", BMC Biology 12/21/2010:

We show that the relative mass of RNA whose function and/or structure we do not understand (the so called 'dark matter' RNAs), as a proportion of all non-ribosomal, non-mitochondrial human RNA (mt-RNA), can be greater than that of protein-encoding transcripts.

I just learned about this usage today, but if I'd been paying attention, I'd have picked it up a lot earlier, as the "so-called" in the quoted sentence hints. Thus Jason M. Johnson et al., "Dark matter in the genome: evidence of widespread transcription detected by microarray tiling experiments", Trends in Genetics 21(2):93-102, February 2005: "Recent ‘tiling’ microarray experiments that assay transcription at regular intervals throughout the genome have shown evidence of large amounts of transcription outside the boundaries of known genes."


  1. GeorgeW said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    Does any meanings of 'dark' fit in this template – hidden, sinister, obscure, somber, dangerous, etc.?

    [(myl) It's mostly important or powerful stuff that's also mysterious, I think.

    The original (Zwicky 1930s, Rubin 1970s) observations showed that the distribution of rotational velocities in galaxies and galaxy clusters suggests a halo of "dark matter", which exerts a great deal of gravitational influence but gives off no light; further observations apparently indicate that this stuff doesn't interact with ordinary matter and energy in any other way, so that it's not just dust or gas. Thus cosmological "dark matter" is consequential — there's estimated to be five times more of it than ordinary matter — and also mysterious, because all of the theories about its nature are highly speculative, and all may be wrong.

    So if X is the dark matter of Y, the metaphor is that X is a large influence on Y — maybe the biggest influence of all — but is unseen (gives off no light) and not generally understood (or maybe not understood at all).]

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Genomic heteroglossia [] on said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    […] Language Log » Genomic heteroglossia – view page – cached December 22, 2010 @ 7:43 am · Filed by Mark Liberman under Language of science, Snowclones […]

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    Dark matter is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of cosmology.

  4. GeorgeW said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    @myl: Thanks for the explanation.

    "the metaphor is that X is a large influence on Y — maybe the biggest influence of all — but is unseen (gives off no light) and not generally understood (or maybe not understood at all).]"

    Does that fit the examples examined by LL such as the following?

    "Email is the dark matter of the blogosphere"
    "The PC is the Dark Matter of the Internet"
    "Euroscepticism is the 'dark matter' of German politics"

    [(myl) More or less, given that the "not generally understood" part usually translates to something like "not recognized except by smart and informed people like the present writer". Thus I interpret "Euroscepticism is the dark matter of German politics" to mean something like "Euroscepticism has a large, maybe dominant, effect on German politics, but most people are not aware of its magnitude or of the role it plays. Let me enlighten you …"]

  5. GeorgeW said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    @myl: Thanks again. That makes sense. It seems that significant influence and not clearly recognized (generally) are obligatory features of the metaphor.

  6. Jan said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    There's also another mysterious force in the cosmos: dark energy. And this term too has recently been borrowed by scientists outside of physics. "The brain's dark energy" is a name coined by neuroscientist Marcus E. Raichle to an influential resting mode of the brain that was unrecognized up to now. (See here)
    "Dark matter" wouldn't fit very well in this context, I guess, since it's rather a state of matter (and perhaps lead to confusion with grey and white matter). Although the idea behind the borrowing is essentially the same…
    However, it's not a kind of energy per se that's involved in this resting mode. Contrary to the case of euroscepticism in German politics by the way: "Euroscepticism is the 'dark energy' of German politics" seems a much better analogy

  7. Sili said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    I think I understand what they mean, but I know too much about DM to make it work.

    DM is stuff we can't see, but whose effect is obvious and necessary to make the Cosmos work. I find it very hard to fit "terrorism" in that mold. Is terrorism all that's left to make the nation state hold together?

  8. thomas said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    There's another genomics use to refer to what I prefer to call the 'heritability gap', the difference between the large known heritability of traits such as height and the small proportion of variation explained by the millions of common polymorphisms that have been studied.

    This use is probably in decline, since there's now a good case that what we're seeing is pretty much what we should expect to see.

  9. Rubrick said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

    This post has caused me to wonder whether Arnold Zwicky is related to Fritz.

  10. Bob Couttie said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

    Does this mean mean that darkmatter is the new black?

  11. mgh said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 10:43 pm

    "Consensus is lacking, however, on approaches and priorities for research to examine what has been termed ‘dark matter’ of genome-wide association—dark matter in the sense that one is sure it exists, can detect its influence, but simply cannot ‘see’ it (yet)."

    Manolio et al., "Finding the missing heritability of complex diseases" Nature 2009.

  12. alex boulton said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    Topically, "dark matter" also occurs in the Cultoromics article:

    …we estimated that 52% of the English lexicon – the majority of the words used in English books – consists of lexical “dark matter” undocumented in standard references.

  13. chris said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    There's also another mysterious force in the cosmos: dark energy. And this term too has recently been borrowed by scientists outside of physics.

    IANA cosmologist, but I think the main difference between dark matter and dark energy is that dark matter is pulling the universe together (through gravity), and dark energy is pushing it apart (through some unknown means).

    I wonder if this sense distinction is preserved in metaphorical uses? Is Euroskepticism a unifying or dividing force in German politics? (The fact that Germany is actually in the EU would seem to suggest the latter.)

  14. Keith said,

    January 6, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    Crashblossoms are the dark matter of journalists' linguification.

  15. Jason said,

    January 11, 2011 @ 11:10 pm

    This isn't quite on topic, but I'm not sure where else to shrug off this terrific burden.

    Is "Don't feed me X and tell me it's Y" a snowclone worth discussing?

    (Related might be "Don't X on my Y and tell me it's Z," but I think there's only one case that fits that model. Maybe the right formula is "Don't X and tell me it's Y.")

RSS feed for comments on this post