The Metaphor, Unchained
Scientists improve their craft by writing about it
Scientists write, first of all for other scientists. It's not publish
or perish, but rather that an open system of communication, a
commitment (shading to an addiction) to telling others what you have
done, is essential to the functioning of science.
The primary medium of communication in the profession is the
peer-reviewed article. This, our stock in trade, has a ritual format
with strong historical roots. Once more diverse, the language of
published articles is now 85 percent English, or an approximation
thereto. Declining mastery of language aside, it's probably okay for
most papers to be written in a bare style, for the vast majority of
more than 500,000 articles published in chemistry and related fields
last year is highly specialized (and routine) science. I do wonder
about the collective effect of so much stylistically undistinguished
writing. Is more harm done by selling lesser science through good
style (I'm not talking about hype), or by poor writing pulling down
A second intersection of science and writing reaches out to
nonspecialists. Here we have science journalism and the
popularization of science. The best examples shape a genre onto
itself. Some are authored by writers, by journalists or historians,
and are just superb, as in K. C. Cole's tours through higher
dimensions. But let me focus on practicing scientists who write in
this mode. I would claim that when scientists themselves write for a
general audience, their research is likely to improve. Why? Because
writing sets free the oft-suppressed metaphor.
Paragons among the kind of general-audience books I have in mind are
those of Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, George Klein and Jacques Monod,
all of whom are (or were) both distinguished scientists and gifted
authors. In their volumes, stories of science are told in a strong
narrative vein. In some, a philosophical framework is explicit; in
others, it remains for us to find. Such books have recently won
Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards and their world-wide
equivalents. This recognition is something new in letters, and well deserved.
Another facet of the genre is made up of articles written by
scientists who lay out their research in popular terms. These
authors write for many reasons. Some may be driven by the stick of
outreach requirements from governmental granting agencies. But more
often a carrot is at work—an invitation that cannot be but
flattering, a lecture series that naturally suggests a published
précis. Ultimately it doesn't matter what
combination of pressures and incentives leads to writing an article
for American Scientist or a similar publication. A process
that initially appears painful grows quickly into the desire to do
Short of research papers, the audience of the scientist-writer is
not in one's own trade. So the author cannot use too much jargon;
the gatekeepers will make sure of that. One must simplify or say it
in another way. Metaphors, similes, analogies—all the ways
human beings have devised to explain that A is sort of like
B—come to the surface. If I want to explain the uncertainty
implicit in measuring simultaneously the position and velocity of a
moving electron using photons, I resort to a thought experiment that
measures the same observables for a baseball, with, say, tennis
balls thrown at it. As I think about how to explain the
vibrational-translational energy transfer necessary for the
greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, CO2, molecules of which
have absorbed infrared radiation, to heat the rest of the atmosphere
(predominantly oxygen, nitrogen and argon), I envision the bending
and unbending CO2 molecule as a gym rat exercising, once
in a while kicking an O2 dumbbell that comes near.
These thought mappings (let's loosely call them metaphors) also
pulse deep in the heart of science. By this I mean they exist in the
daily practice of doing research—in the way scientists
generate hypotheses, theories and experiments. But … people
don't much admit to it. My observation is that scientists sanitize
their papers to remove as many explicit admissions as possible of
the fecund, generative utility of such metaphors. Why? Because
metaphors are (mistakenly) thought to impress no one—they are
not mathematicizable; they are less "rational."
Along comes science writing. Now the scientist needs to explain
something to the partially literate masses. All of a sudden, the
metaphor, previously suppressed, is set free. Its use is intuitive;
in fact, it's desperately needed.
But there's more to letting loose the beast than merely lifting the
lock. Infused with the red blood of real ideas, metaphor, simile and
analogy become explicit. They are reified, and importantly so in the
mind of the scientist-writer. He or she may have used the thought
map to design an experiment, or try out an analysis. Yet few allow
themselves to pursue it, fully. It may be their loss: A naked
metaphor clearly shows the analogy's limitations, its capacity for
misinterpretation and its productive extensions. It aids its creator
as well as its audience.
Science writing is inherently pedagogical. And the scientist-writer
will be able to both express and understand the specialized science
he or she does more clearly as a consequence of the act of writing.
Let me explain.
Our minds are full of inchoate ideas, inklings and partial
explanations. Once verbalized, at a research-group meeting, for
instance, or in the process of writing a paper, the ideas become
real. Being human, we then marshal support, adduce arguments. The
scientific paper explains. It has to teach—and to teach one
must use those slippery words, eternally straying, lacking fidelity
to the idea. But it is only with words that the removed reader may
be reached. I see no dichotomy between teaching and research, only a
continually varying set of audiences.
Good science writing has the audience firmly in mind—it
teaches you (and a good editor can help so much) to teach others.
This is not the mindless teaching of techniques or arid tables of
dates and names: That requires neither acuity nor imagination.
Rather, the act of skillful writing schools its author in ways of
explaining structure and significance, of explaining ideas. Which is
just what you need to do good science.
I can hear in my mind one reaction to what I have said: "Are
not observations, objective facts and reproducible data the
foundations of science? Does it not suffice to report these, without
embellishment?" Well, no. Science cannot exist without
narrative. And making the effort to write of science for the general
public sensitizes the practicing scientist to the importance of
I recently reviewed a paper that tried to embody Sgt. Joe Friday's
laconic ideal ("All we want are the facts, ma'am"). It
consisted of 25 tables taking up some 35 pages and a handful of
written pages. The text, such as it was, effectively said,
"this and that are true; just look at Table 16." The
failure of such a paper is transparent. The facts are mute; people
need words, spoken or written, to make sense of data.
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. So one
is open to the criticism that the narrative prejudices the content,
or, in other words, is "theory-laden." But—and this
is the dance—the exact language used, be it English, Japanese
or Arabic, should not matter. The stories that are told aspire to
the universal, or, to use Gunther Stent's idea, to the infinitely
paraphrasable. The valuable stories (I would call them
"myths," using the most respectful meaning of the word)
are essences. And this is the lovely paradox: These essential
stories are, in a way, stripped of the supposed subjectivity of
language—subjectivity that is absolutely necessary to tell the
story in the first place (and even more necessary for it to be believed).
Like metaphor, storytelling is not mathematical. Yet it also is
essential to good science, for two reasons. First, when simplicity
(always the first aesthetic criterion) fails, human beings prefer to
organize their hard-won knowledge of reality in the form of a story.
We find a pattern, which means we find a story. Second, the
classical workings of the scientific method demand the formulation
of not one but several alternative hypotheses. What is a hypothesis,
if not a story? Better learn to weave not one, but many.
People love stories. The best science writing, such as the
remarkable case studies in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a
Hat by Oliver Sacks, teaches us narrative. That skill, to tell
a story, is most unlikely to be part of a technical education. Yet
it is not lost on scientists.
Better Science Through Writing
I am convinced that I have become a better theoretical chemist, a
better explainer of the common and strange things molecules do,
because I had to teach undergraduate courses. And also because I
chose to write about science for people who do not share my academic
background. Metaphor, teaching, storytelling were set loose within
me because I was addressing a general audience of students and
readers. There was no formula—I wanted to catch and hold their
interest, no more. This approach proved to be at once more natural
and more effective than one comprised solely of facts, however
rational their presentation.
They have no substance, these mental fetters that constrain metaphor
and teaching and narrative in the communication of science. Break
them. And when they are gone, still a scientist, you will understand
better, see things more clearly, know what we cannot see.
© Roald Hoffmann