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Many concepts are metaphorical coequals across physical, social, and mental space. One, for sure, is space. Others might be balance, order, and decay. But perhaps the most important is structure. Structure accounts for and describes the arrangement, relationships, and patterns between the objects, images, and devices present within in our physical, social, and mental space. Perhaps the clearest example of structure is provided by the physical structure of chemical substances. A molecule comprises atoms held together by chemical bonds, whose arrangement can be explained by molecular geometry; a three-dimensional molecular structure can be represented in models like the one in this two-dimensional image:
Comprised of many heterogeneous molecular structures reacting to each other are living organs and organisms, from bacteria to human beings, which bacteriologists and macrobiologists also think of as material structures. The concept of structure seems already to have an overwhelmingly capacious scope. And this is before we talk about how physicists understand and represent the structures of galaxies, gravitationally-bound systems of stars, stellar remnants, interstellar gas, dust, and dark matter.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines structure as ‘the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex’. But this definition doesn’t quite evoke the sense of how, when we use the word ‘structure’ to describe chemical substances, animal bodies, and galaxies we do so with a particular and contingent way of seeing the world. Structure is about how we measure, model, and represent physical phenomena, and therefore about the unified coherence we accord to particular objects, some of which more than others we speak into apprehension. It would be perfectly ordinary not to consider a cow a kind of biological structure. One could see a cow as a physical danger, an environmental threat, or simply as meat. In either case, the structure of the cow is somehow relevant to the subject of discussion: its mind, strength, physiology, digestion, and its constituent protein. But whether or not we intuitively conceptualise an object in terms of structure depends on how we encounter them. Though chemical structure is, save for absurdity, the only way we can think about a molecule, anatomy is just one of many ways we can think about an animal.
Fully automated factories, free from human presence, can run with their lights off. Their machines churn away, satiating our greed for commodities, obediently thundering on in the dark. This productive process of industrial replication in the social body could be compared to the catabolic process of food digestion in the natural body. Both leave us unaware as they thereby, without our participation or consideration, sustain our lives.
It is sometimes said that if the history of the earth were condensed to one year, it’d be one hour til Auld Lang Syne before Neanderthals show up. At 23:58 and 43 seconds, the birth and death of Christ. Creationists used to date the earth and therefore the universe at about 6,000 to 10,000 years. In 1779, Comte du Buffon estimated it was in fact 75,000 years old. In 1862, Lord Kelvin assumed the earth began as a completely molten object and estimated its age at between 20 to 400 million years.
Scientists now understand the Earth to be about 4.5 billion years old and the universe a whopping 14 billion. If these figures cannot be taken as estimates of widespread perceptions at any one time, they nevertheless help articulate some change in perspective over the past few hundred years. Contemporary science points to a universe over 13,000,000,000 years older than European people believed 400 years ago – nanoseconds before midnight. For auld lang syne, my jo,/ for auld lang syne,/ we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,/ for auld lang syne.