The Art of the Scientific Metaphor

Ned Shaw It is not too much to say that science and the technologies that derive from it have altered the very nature of human society. It is surprising, then, if science is all that important in human culture, that people would seem indifferent about its nature. Considerably more attention is paid to how movies are made, novels are written, or great paintings are born than to how scientists make new knowledge. Given its centrality in modern life, shouldn't people be more interested in how sci

By | November 3, 2003

Ned Shaw

It is not too much to say that science and the technologies that derive from it have altered the very nature of human society. It is surprising, then, if science is all that important in human culture, that people would seem indifferent about its nature. Considerably more attention is paid to how movies are made, novels are written, or great paintings are born than to how scientists make new knowledge. Given its centrality in modern life, shouldn't people be more interested in how science really works as a creative enterprise?

Part of the problem is that scientist and nonscientist alike tend to believe that the thought processes involved in doing science are unique and abstruse. But is this really the case? I began to think about these matters several years ago when I directed the Beckman Institute, a large interdisciplinary research center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I found I could understand a great deal about how science works by noticing how scientists communicate about their work. The study of language is especially rewarding in providing insights into how we think, because language is how we express understanding. The language that scientists use and the models they construct shed light on how ideas about the world are represented in the mind. Analyzing the language of science, including scientific theories and models, reveals its thoroughly metaphorical nature. Metaphor imbues the creative arts. This suggests that creativity in science and in the arts is not fundamentally different.

Metaphor provides the means for understanding and talking about abstract ideas and entities that are not directly observable, in terms of concepts grounded in very basic physical and social experiences. For example, the idea of atoms, first advanced by the Ionian Greeks, was expressed in terms of tiny, indivisible particles in constant motion. More recently, the hydrogen atom was compared to an orbiting planetary system. The abstract concept of energy is often represented in scientific accounts as a surface; processes occurring in time, such as protein folding, are seen as movement on such a surface. Molecules are visualized as three-dimensional using models such as the ball and stick. This year, 50 years after the discovery of the structure of DNA, we have been reminded of this event by the picture of James Watson and Francis Crick standing alongside their homemade model, a metaphor if ever there was one.

In each example, the observational world is interpreted in "as if" terms: It is as if atoms were little particles flying about endlessly, as if molecules consisted of little spheres connected to one another via rigid rods, and so on.

As systems increase in complexity, it becomes necessary to draw upon social experiences to provide the necessary analogies. This is the case in cellular and molecular biology. For example, the cell may be seen as a factory, with complex relationships and functions such as signaling, energy budget, transport, and quality control. Similarly, large and complex problem areas with societal implications, such as nuclear waste storage or global warming, are also explained using metaphorical models. As they cross the border between science and society, metaphors may take on new roles, sometimes serving as foils in political debates.

The theory of conceptual metaphor, first elaborated by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, is a powerful tool in showing the embodied nature of human cognition. To think about and communicate abstract concepts and ideas, we are driven to metaphorical speech that draws upon a deep reservoir of largely unconscious cognition, grounded in basic physical experiences, and in gestalts drawn from social experiences. An important corollary is that our understanding of the world is constrained by these forms of cognition. Conceptual metaphor theory requires us to take a much different view of the nature of scientific activity from that based on conventional philosophy of science traditions. The examples cited above only hint at the deeply metaphorical nature of the language and models that scientists employ to communicate.

The vital roles of metaphor in the creative arts have long been recognized. The same kinds of largely unconscious cognition, drawing upon embodied and social experiences and the tacit knowledge they generate, are also the stuff of creativity in science.

Theodore L. Brown, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry, is Founding Director Emeritus of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His new book, Making Truth: The Roles of Metaphor in Science, University of Illinois Press, was released this past May.


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