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In Defense Of Metaphors In Science Writing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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(James Gillray)

“Science is all metaphor”
Timothy Leary

We live in an elegant universe.

The cosmos is like a string symphony.

Genes are selfish.

There is an endless battle between thermodynamics and gravity.

Do you love these statements, or hate them? The reading world gets pretty divided over whether or not it’s okay to apply metaphors and similes to descriptive science writing. It even gets hot and bothered over the use of that most practical parent of metaphors – the analogy. For example, in my 2012 book, Gravity’s Engines, I presented a discussion of some of the most extreme and complex astrophysical phenomena in the known universe – black holes – by deploying a whole battleship’s worth of analogy, metaphor, simile, and just about anything else I could lay my hands on (just as I did there). In some quarters this went down a treat, in others not so much.

Of course it’s easy to get carried away, slathering on a few too many layers of metaphorical comparison until the poor reader doesn’t know whether to imagine falling off a cosmological cliff or diving into a collapsing souffle of intergalactic gas (yeah, sorry, that was me). But sometimes you really have no choice.

Subtle writing, writing that leads the reader into a carefully nuanced emotional or intellectual state, is certainly the finer craft. A story evoking a visceral sense of the enormity and alien magnificence of something like a supermassive black hole, and its cosmic context – made with nothing more than finely chosen words and rhythm – would be wonderful. But I think it’s a very significant puzzle as to how to accomplish that without leaving readers confused and adrift.

Subjects like astrophysics, mathematics, microbiology, or quantum mechanics, or for that matter any scientific field, are built upon dryly quantitative facts. They are also, if taken to a sufficiently deep level, beyond our direct physical experience. This does not make for a clearly defined pathway of delicate prose, although I’m sure it’s there if one is lucky enough to find it – and so we’re left making some rather tough language choices.

These are also areas of huge complexity, which is why textbooks are enormous and all too often mind-numbing. However, to capture the practical mechanics of the science poetically, to sneak up quietly on the vital heart of the subject through non-metaphorical innuendo and implication would, to put it bluntly, take a time exceeding most normal human lifespans. Metaphors are the heavy implements that get the job done, albeit with some collateral damage (just like that).

The problem is that while a specific metaphor might work for some people, it won’t for others. This is especially true for scientists themselves, who sometimes lack a sense of humor, or even just common sense. I once wrote about a dying star as being ‘bloated and gouty’, as its outer atmosphere inflates and blows off to interstellar space. I rather liked this. ‘Gouty’ has always made me think of Willam Hogarth, or James Gillray, and their satirical drawings in the 18th century, filled with wonderfully appalling characters. It seemed like a good way to evoke the sense of an aged and, ah-hem, rather flatulent stellar object. But no, for at least one scientist this was all wrong. Stars, they pointed out, can’t possibly be gouty because they don’t produce uric acid…

Oh good grief.

I’ve also had critics say that they wish I’d just ‘stick to the numbers’ in describing things like the mass of black holes or the collections of hundreds of billions of stars that constitute galaxies. No talk of buzzing swarms of bees, or vast dandelion heads, or swirling stellar pizzas. According to these readers there is no need, or desire, to try to bring such cosmic structures ‘down to earth’. It’s a fair point, sometimes you want to feel that such things are untouchable, unknowable. But the simple truth is that scientists themselves constantly make use of analogies, metaphorical devices, and similes. Sometimes it’s the only way to build an intuition for a problem, by relating it to something else – Richard Feynman was perhaps one of the greatest players of this game, turning spinning plates into cutting-edge quantum physics and Nobel prizes.

I’ve also had critical eyes express dislike for anything that smacks of anthropomorphism – the ‘pathetic fallacy‘ of John Ruskin. Black holes are not, they complain, allowed to be ‘monsterized’. Galaxies can’t experience painful disruption, planetary systems can’t be spoken of as disheveled entities or family members. Well okay, but since prehistory humans have sought to relate to the world around themselves by finding anthropomorphic connections. Is it scientific? No, not particularly, but what are we to do, just shrug and separate ourselves from the entire natural world – them and us?

As a working scientist I actually don’t have any problem with the notion of making mental labels for natural phenomena that include some degree of personality. I like my black holes fearsome and my interstellar gas thin and frail. It may well be that in doing so one reinforces a certain blinkering, but we’re not all Mr Spock, we need structures, we need something to hang on to – as long as we remember to let go occasionally.

And here’s the crux. If scientists need something to grasp at, what about the rest of the world? Quantitative reasoning and scientific knowledge is not everyone’s forte, nor is it in everyone’s daily experience (a fact that we might bemoan, but it is the truth). If a metaphor gets it even half right and if it triggers someone’s imagination, that’s not bad in my opinion. Of course it can sometimes backfire, confusing more than elucidating, and even swaying scientific thought in unwanted ways – a point nicely discussed by Philip Ball back in 2011.

But so it goes, human language is imperfect, and the human brain is imperfect. We can all see the things we want to, and miss the things we shouldn’t. An erratically driven bus appears as a future danger to one person, merely a erratic bus to another. And an angry, tantrum-ridden, star is a poetic opportunity for a teacher, but simply a pre-main-sequence object to a bored student. Good metaphors are incredibly useful, bad ones a painful detour, but usually the intent is noble – it’s all about trying to communicate our knowledge of a truly vast, complicated, and really very interesting universe.

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Scienceisnotagenda 9:41 am 07/9/2013

    Stopped reading after a quote from a drug advocating guru. Timothy Leary matters because……?

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  2. 2. davenussbaum 10:23 am 07/9/2013

    I thought this article deserved a comment by someone who got past the sixth word. I’m all for using metaphor in science writing, even if the only reason were that there are already plenty of places to get just the facts. If you’re able to engage people whose eyes would otherwise glaze over and share your wonder and passion, then the jeers of the ‘stick to the numbers’ crowd is a small price to pay.

    Of course sometimes metaphors can be misleading, so it’s not like you don’t have to be careful. I think many people are led astray by the notion that genes “want” something, and end up entangled in misunderstandings for which the metaphor is partly to blame.

    Since this comment wouldn’t be complete without a sweeping metaphor, how about a simile about a bear? Metaphors in science writing are like a bear: they can make things more interesting, but be careful, because they can be dangerous, and also, they love honey.

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  3. 3. paigekbrown 10:49 am 07/9/2013

    On the psychological level, why do you as a science writing think that metaphors WORK for public audiences, to engage lay readers in science writing?

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  4. 4. rloldershaw 10:59 am 07/9/2013

    You mention black holes as complex systems. They are hardly simple, but their basic properties can be specified by 3 parameters: their mass, angular momentum and charge.

    Interestingly fundamental subatomic particles are also fairly well characterized by their mass, charge and spin angular momentum.

    Looks like a fairly profound potential for an analogy here, and a clear example of discrete fractal self-similarity.

    As Leonard Susskind has noted: “One of the deepest lessons that we have learned over the past decade is that there is no fundamental difference between elementary particles and black holes”.

    Worth serious thought, methinks.

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity/Fractal Cosmology

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  5. 5. Caleb A. Scharf in reply to Caleb A. Scharf 11:13 am 07/9/2013

    Real black holes form complex systems – while mass, spin, and charge are the only parameters needed to describe the hole itself, the environment around them can be extraordinarily messy.

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  6. 6. Kathy K. 11:17 am 07/9/2013

    “…but we’re all not Mr. Spock…” is absolutely correct (and made me chuckle.)
    Some people just like to complain and will find fault in everything except, of course, their own work.
    Metaphors, similes, and analogies help to stoke the imagination, and attract the non-scientists (which is the majority of the population)into thinking and caring about science. That is a good thing!
    Thanks for a wonderfully written article.

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  7. 7. Scienceisnotagenda 12:02 pm 07/9/2013

    Writing ‘about’ science is not science writing. The purpose of science writing is not to grab the public’s attention or create enthusiasm. It’s to advance knowledge.

    What the author sees as ‘dry’ quantitative description is not at all dry to those in the field. The value is in clarity and not murky undefined superfluous wording. Reality is fascinating in itself.

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  8. 8. Bora Zivkovic 12:16 pm 07/9/2013

    Scienceisnotagenda – Science writing is, by definition, writing about science. In magazines (like this one), newspapers, on blogs etc. It is targeting lay audience. It has professional organizations and conferences. It is mainly done by professional writers whose background may be in science but just as likely to be in journalism or English (though those always liked and studied science on their own).

    It is very different from communication that scientists do for each other in scientific journals – which is not the topic of this post at all.

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  9. 9. paigekbrown 2:19 pm 07/9/2013

    Ditto what Bora said.

    Re: “The purpose of science writing is not to grab the public’s attention or create enthusiasm. It’s to advance knowledge.” Even if we only conceive the goal of science writing as the advancement of knowledge (which is a very narrow goal, by the way, and one that hearkens back to the ‘deficit’ model of science communication, which has been shown wrong again and again), how in the world are you going to advance the knowledge of anyone if you don’t at first grab their attention and strike up their imagination? What scientist didn’t pursue his or her career path because a high school science experiment or story about astronauts lit their imagination as a child or young adult?

    No, science writing must ABSOLUTELY grab attention, tell a story, pull at our heartstrings, make us laugh, shock us, intrigue us, touch our imaginations, or it is just meaningless jargon, even to other scientists.

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  10. 10. Jennifer Frazer 3:18 pm 07/9/2013

    For the record, I love your description of the dying star as “gouty”. But then again, I’m not an astrophysicist.

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  11. 11. oldfartfox 3:45 pm 07/9/2013

    I tend to think of black holes as similar to flushing toilets with the the bowl as the event horizon, but maybe I’m just weird.

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  12. 12. denke42 4:02 pm 07/9/2013

    I agree with davenussbaum (comment #2). Genes “wanting” something is however only one of far too many metaphors that misleadingly suggest teleology. This is particularly common in writing about evolution, of course, where it is exactly wrong – and where the target audience may be most susceptible to this error.

    “Science writers” are not, unfortunately, the only offenders: even scientists commit this , at least when writing (or speaking) for a popular audience, including in Scientific American.

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  13. 13. Page J 9:29 am 07/10/2013

    Many people are turned off by science because they don’t understand it. It is possible to write about science in a way that engages the layperson while maintaining the integrity of the science.

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  14. 14. CliffClark 8:51 pm 07/11/2013

    It seems that many aspects of science (eg. quantum mechanics) can only be explored by all but extreme specialists through metaphors. Metaphors are a wonderful place to begin thinking about scientific concepts, and an equally wonderful tool for gaining a deeper understanding of what we actually know and do not know about an issue or problem in science. The key (for a scientist) is to recognize the limits of metaphor and begin to explore what aspects of the metaphor may be appropriate (a fairly decent first approximation or model of the system of interest) and which aspects do not make any sense at all. My Ph.D. supervisor once used as a metaphor for ligand-receptor binding at the eukaryotic cell surface a National Geographic photo of scientists in something resembling a rubber raft on top of the rainforest canopy in the Amazon. I spent several productive and amusing weeks thinking about how well that did or did not mirror reality – and how certain aspects could be investigated. Perhaps the answer to any problems with the use of metaphors in writing for interested lay readers would be to, on occasion, explore a metaphor in this way to clearly demonstrate the benefits and limitations of doing so and to warn the interested person that the use of metaphors requires some investment in deep thought. In my experience, scientist usually leave the dry, pedantic exposition to materials being prepared for peer review. When talking to each other – especially at beer-fuelled, off-the-wall brainstorming sessions in the bar at scientific meetings – we seem to use colourful firework-like, semi-poetic explosions of chained metaphor. And also the poor cousin, the simile. I often wonder whether the default mode of thinking for many scientists is the metaphor? Where would we be without it/them?

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  15. 15. barn_the_bunny 10:14 am 07/12/2013

    I agree with you wholeheartedly.


    often when we try to explain some… physicsy thing… to a layperson, it’s like the blind men and the elephant… a 20 minute conversation is not a 35 hour course with a 1000 page textbook. we are usually trying to explain one specific element or feature. and in this sense there’s nothing wrong with saying that an elephant’s foot is like a tree, or it’s trunk is like a snake.

    there are jerks who believe that the truth to the analogy should extend farther than it does. and there are explainers who make bad analogies. but don’t listen to the jerks. analogies are king. (it’s a physics podcast which uses a lot. A LOT. of analogies)

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  16. 16. Prairie Dog 1:35 pm 07/12/2013

    Great post, absolutely correct and on point.

    For scienceisnotagenda: speaking as scientist to scientist, to advance knowledge, is often the road to doom. Consider the DNA evidence in the O J Simpson trial. Granted, the defense was allowed to choose jurors that couldn’t comprehend DNA, but the prosecution made the mistake of presenting the DNA evidence via the testimony of a scientific worker, who presented it in dry, purely scientific terms. The jurors’ eyes glazed over after five minutes. From that moment the DNA became irrelevant. Had the evidence been presented in writing it would have been in the trash in seconds. If the witness had been able to use apt metaphors the jury might actually have been able to follow and understand the evidence.

    Metaphor most definitely has a place in science writing for the public, even for the scientifically sophisticated public. Even for the working scientist if the material happens to be out of his or her field.

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  17. 17. davedobbs 2:34 pm 07/13/2013

    Writing about science without using metaphors is like …. it’s like …

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  18. 18. verdai 3:20 pm 07/14/2013

    whatever, they Need more.
    some can talk and others really cannot.
    and some never have meaning no matter what they say.

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  19. 19. RussAbbott 1:28 pm 08/28/2014

    I’ve always liked how you write. Now I know why.

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