A view From the Bridge

Metaphor and message

On the trail of the 'ghostly neutrino': the Daya Bay Neutrino Experiment near Hong Kong.

On the trail of the ‘ghostly neutrino’: the Daya Bay Neutrino Experiment near Hong Kong.

Courtesy of Roy Kaltschmidt

In this week’s Spring Books special — 6 reviews, 10 books, immeasurable reading pleasure — historian of genetics Nathaniel Comfort assesses a trio of new works on genomics, led by John Parrington’s The Deeper Genome. Comfort is dismayed by the outworn terminology we keep trotting out to describe our messy, dynamic, ‘junk’-ridden inner Universe. What’s needed, he asserts, is fresh, accurate imagery, nippy enough to keep up with the evolving science.

The power of metaphor in science is itself a trope in science writing. Scientists conveying the compulsive thrills of their work to the public and the generalist are ever reaching for the bon mot that expresses the essence of a phenomenon more truly understood through mathematical or chemical formulae. It’s a tough call, and on some level an impossible one. The most a communicator can light upon is often an organising idea — imperfect but functional, and with enough cultural resonance to allow intuitive understanding.

Hence the elegant Universe, ghostly neutrinos, dark energy, selfish genes. Do these mask, or reveal? Educate, or (to coin a simile) spread misinformation like the ripples from a thrown stone?

Science communicators ponder these issues as a matter of course. Ann Finkbeiner, a frequent contributor to Nature’s Books & Arts pages, is running a sporadic series on the issue (grappling, for instance, with the likes of “tidal locking”) in The Last Word on Nothing. Prolific writer and former Nature editor Philip Ball has written that we should “heed the warning of pioneering cyberneticists Arturo Rosenblueth and Norbert Wiener that ‘the price of metaphor is eternal vigilance’”. And exoplaneteer Caleb Scharf concedes that while some readers might be flummoxed by rococo images such as a “collapsing soufflé” to describe intergalactic gas, the risk must be taken.

Yet the challenge remains: science is quantitative, complicated, often beyond the reach of human experience. As Nobellist, chemist and poet Roald Hoffman (Q&A’d here) notes, “There is an interesting dance here, in that data (observations, equations, structural formulas, spectra) are useless without the narrative, theoretical framework to make a story out of them.” And however inadequate it can prove, metaphor is knitted into mentation: we seem to be pattern-matchers.

The known is a springboard to the unknown. This is how we learn. We need the familiar — and sometimes, if it serves, even the anthropomorphic — to begin to comprehend our wild cosmos. As Scharf notes, “what are we to do, just shrug and separate ourselves from the entire natural world – them and us?” Through metaphor we ally ourselves to the Universe, docking in with a linguistic click.

Order a free pdf of Spring Books here. And listen in as Kerri Smith and I talk about Spring Books on Nature Podcast. 


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.


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