Complex and abstract thoughts are often both difficult to understand and to articulate. When scientists write about their work and detail the interpretations of their findings, they try to offer their readers some coherence, some solidity, but the nature of their subject matter often makes this a challenge. Some authors simply dismiss the challenge and produce turgid prose that is painful and time-consuming to read and ultimately uninspiring. Others, however, pick up the gauntlet and strive to make their ideas understandable on first reading. They are aware of the extra effort needed to make their writing clear and concise. And they appreciate the need to take their readers by the hand and guide them along a logical, well-signposted path of reasoning and argument towards a conclusion.

In addition to this, they also understand the utility of metaphor. For some — especially poorer writers — the notion of metaphor merely conjures up the lyricism of fiction. Metaphor for them represents the unnecessary adornment of language with frills and fripperies. What they fail to understand is that metaphor, used well, is an invaluable piece of instrumentation, and one that can make the difference between clarity and confusion.

Metaphor is a lens through which we can more precisely view an often blurred reality. The use of metaphor can bring an indistinct image into sharper focus. And, of course, in a rather meta way this way of describing metaphor is itself a metaphor to help us understand its use.

A carefully crafted metaphor will do much of the work that is needed in order for a reader to understand our meaning. By presenting a parallel, perhaps more familiar, reality we can align our readers’ thoughts with ours. By offering an alternative, a more solid, example with sharper edges in place of a softer, rather nebulous concept, we can share the fruits of our thought with greater precision.

Whether it be the incomprehensibly large or small, or the dauntingly complex with multiple layers of structure or function that need to be separated to be understood, metaphor has a place. In biochemistry we talk of enzymes and their substrates as ‘keys and locks’; in astrophysics we talk of gravitational ‘waves’; in medicine we talk of a patient suffering ‘depression’. None of these are meant literally, but the metaphor is used in each case to offer clarity to the reader.

What of the structure of the cell? In biology, we study static and often colourful descriptions of the organelles that inhabit the cell and think we know what a mitochondrion or a ribosome look like. In fact, they are nothing like their cartoons, but that is unimportant, when we remember that the metaphor that is presented is merely a lens to bring the microscopic and inaccessible into focus, giving them line and form and therefore ultimately function.

Beyond this simple and common use of parallel terms or simplified pictures to explain the unfamiliar, we also have throughout science the development of more complex metaphorical systems. These might also be called models, but at their heart they are simply metaphors — the substitution of one thing for another.

In chemistry, the atom is presented as a miniature solar system with electrons orbiting a proton and neutron cluster star. While the reality of sub-atomic structure would defy this description, such a model is still useful, especially to help those first learning about atomic structure, before they move on to a more nuanced understanding. In physiology, fluid balance is represented using watertanks and taps which we can visualise and grasp, when in reality this is a stark, if convenient, simplification of the complexities of this aspect of our homeostasis. Again, however, this model, this metaphor, makes the process immediately accessible to those learning about it for the first time.

We talk of ‘black holes’ and the genetic ‘code’ and the ‘flowering’ of a species; we measure the ‘flow’ of electricity and describe the function of ‘messenger’ RNA; and we even say it all began with a ‘Big Bang’ when of course bangs are noisy, and noise would not have figured at all.

Any model is then a form of metaphor, representing and describing something as something else, and science is full of models to help us rationalise and understand things we can never see and never touch.

As we write about our science, we need metaphor to help make sense of it.   Scientists, for the most part, inhabit an abstract world, and the abstract can be dark. Indeed, the abstract draws a veil across meaning and the good science writer’s job is not to offer simplicity for the sake of analgesia, but rather to provide illumination. Good writing ensures the effective and economical transmission of meaning and does it simply. Simplicity encompasses clarity, brevity and above all metaphor. And metaphor brings with it focus.

© Allan Gaw 2016


Now available in paperback…

Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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My other books currently available on kindle:

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