I've heard the expression free radical and I got the sense that it meant something more intricate than a radical (i.e. not moderate nor balanced entity) that is free (i.e. not associated nor constrained).

Googling leads to a bunch of chemical and medical results but that's not the domain I've heard the expression in. I don't want to mention in what field that's been used because I fear that it'll mislead us on the wrong path. Also, since I was gravely confused by the speaker, I can't provide any guesses.

I believe the interlocutor used the expression metaphorically, anyway.

  • Free radical is big in chemistry. Just so you know :) – Varun Nair Dec 9 '15 at 12:50
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    To the best of my knowledge free radical only has a fixed meaning in a chemical context. In any other context it's probably a conscious pun; but in any case the meaning of 'free' and 'radical' are going to be contextually determined. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 9 '15 at 13:12
  • It probably is a pun, similar to ferrous (ferris) and ferric wheels, those crazy chemists(!) Maybe the speaker meant to imply there are radicals (idealists) who are not imprisoned? – Peter Dec 9 '15 at 13:44
  • @VarunKN Yes, I know. Google told me. :) – Konrad Viltersten Dec 9 '15 at 13:44
  • @Peter We were talking about IT infrastructure in the cloud solution regarding Microsofts Azure platform. No chemistry nor people were referred. The subject was servers... – Konrad Viltersten Dec 9 '15 at 13:45

From Wikipedia

In chemistry, a radical (more precisely, a free radical) is an atom, molecule, or ion that has unpaired valency electrons. With some exceptions, these unpaired electrons make free radicals highly chemically reactive towards other substances, or even towards themselves

"Free Radical" has been used titles of songs, publications, films, band names, and other places metaphorically because both "free and "radical" have meanings independently that combine with the idea of "highly reactive" from the phrase. Radical can mean a person favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms and free can mean both"acting without self-restraint or reserve" and "unrestricted by authority or rules".

So all together, when referring to a person, it has the idea of someone who has a radical philosophy, is free from the constraints of authority or social norms, and causes a lot of reactions with other people (although whether those are positive or negative depends on your views). A free radical is a different idea from just a radical, because some people with radical philosophies might still be restricted by some authority or set of rules.

Describing someone as a radical has a negative connotation currently because it's widely used to describe terrorists, and adding "free" to radical causes a different, less negative association. My impression of a free radical is a person who is more likely to act and think independently (not willing to take or give orders) and less likely to be violent than someone who is just a radical.

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    I'm not particularly "chemistry-minded", but I seem to often come across "free radical" in the context of nutrition. Apparently we have to eat more stuff like tomato ketchup, 'cos it's got antioxidants that counter the bad effects of free radicals in our bodies. So to the extent that I know the specific pairing, it automatically has "negative" connotations to me. I can see what you're getting at re "free" conjuring up positive images of "free spirits" & such, but as it stands we've no context to say whether OP's usage is supposed to be positive, negative, or just "figuratively descriptive". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Dec 9 '15 at 17:28
  • @FumbleFingers I think the use of free radical in nutrition is a pretty literal use of the chemistry sense, even if the target audience doesn't understand the technical details. It would be nice if there was more context in the question, but this is the only metaphorical type use I'm aware of. – ColleenV Dec 9 '15 at 19:15
  • @FumbleFingers Actually I just saw the comments, I'm probably going to have to do a rewrite. – ColleenV Dec 9 '15 at 19:17
  • @FumbleFingers Oh, I just realized what he meant. When you scale out a DB farm, the additional nodes are not free radicals but rather pieces in a bigger set up and as such they work together. The improvement of performance isn't due to a node being a free radical but rather all the nodes working in sync! – Konrad Viltersten Dec 9 '15 at 20:38

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