Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Metaphor: Is there any other way to talk science?

I was struck today by New York Times' reporter Dennis Overbye's use of metaphor to report scientists' pursuit on other planets for the origin of life on Earth. His piece evokes Eden as a metaphor for the hot primordial gunk where the first particles meshed to create living organisms. The metaphor instantly calls to mind the dawn of existence, a bountiful variety that subsequently sprung from its many mutations and a specific location outside of the Earth we know today.

In fact, most of our scientific understanding is neatly described through common or allegorical metaphors. Atoms are building blocks that operate like orbiting planetary systems. The Internet is a web of information, your browser accesses a series of packets to load a web page. String theory is built on the metaphor of electrons and quarks as strings. In physics gravity pulls us, in immunology microbes carry bacteria and in chemistry molecules bounce while heat flows.

Metaphor is a cognitive coping mechanism that helps us contemplate and understand phenomena that we can't see. Taken too literally, scientific metaphors can prevent us from truly observing all of the important details or attributes of a phenomenon and prevent further scientific discovery. What metaphors do you rely on to talk about science?

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