The Scientific Activist

Scientists as Poets

On the surface, science and poetry seem as distant from each other as the Republican Party and good science policy. And, in a large part they are. While both strive for a deeper understanding of the world around us, one avoids the subjective like the plague, while the other embraces it almost exclusively. However, as a recent article by Siobhan Roberts in the Toronto Star explores, scientists are no stranger to the poetic devices of metaphor and analogy.

Roberts’ article explores analogy not as just a device used by scientists to communicate their work, but as a fundamental tool of inquiry, a point that is particularly compelling since it usually doesn’t receive a great deal of attention, especially in the popular media. As I reflected on the article, I realized that I use analogy in my research more than I had originally thought.

In fact, in many ways scientific inquiry is driven by analogy, sometimes more explicit than others. For example, if I want to understand what a new protein does and how it does it, the first place I’m going to look is at analogous proteins. If I’m designing a new method, I’m going to take existing methods and tailor them to the new system based on how this system differs from the previous one.

Beyond the technical and into the realm of ideas, metaphor is still a driving force, as scientists attempt to understand microscopic objects in terms of the everyday and exotic abstract concepts in terms of the more mundane and tangible. Roberts’ article highlights some particularly significant instances of metaphor in science (from Mental Leaps: Analogy in Creative Thought by Keith Holyoak and Paul Thagard):

The ancient Greeks used water waves to suggest the nature of the modern wave theory of sound. A millennia and a half later, the same analogical abstraction yielded the wave theory of light.

Charles Darwin formed his evolutionary theory of natural selection by drawing a parallel to the artificial selection performed by breeders, an analogy he cited in his 1859 classic The Origin of Species.

Velcro, invented in 1948 by Georges de Mestral, is an example of technological design based on visual analogy — Mestral recalled how the tiny hooks of burrs stuck to his dog’s fur. Velcro later became a “source” for further analogical designs with “targets” in medicine, biology, and chemistry. According to Mental Leaps, these new domains for analogical transfer include abdominal closure in surgery, epidermal structure, molecular bonding, antigen recognition, and hydrogen bonding.

Physicists currently find themselves toying with analogies in trying to unravel the puzzle of string theory, which holds promise as a grand unified theory of everything in the universe. Here the tool of analogy is useful in various contexts — not only in the discovery, development, and evaluation of an idea, but also in the exposition of esoteric hypotheses, in communicating them both among physicists and to the layperson.

Brian Greene, a Columbia University professor cum pop-culture physicist, has successfully translated the foreign realm of string theory for the general public with his best-selling book The Elegant Universe (1999) and an accompanying NOVA documentary, both replete with analogies to garden hoses, string symphonies, and sliced loaves of bread. As one profile of Greene observed, “analogies roll off his tongue with the effortless precision of a Michael Jordan lay-up.”

One of my main points of contention with this article arises from these last two paragraphs, as from this point onwards, the article seems to confuse two very different and distinct phenomena: analogies that help the scientist understand the unknown and analogies that allow the scientist to explain his or her work to the public. Both are pervasive in science, but I would argue that the former is a fundamental aspect of science, while the latter is more of a side effect.

Some of the article is also a bit of a stretch. For example, Roberts writes “A scientist, one might liken, is an empirical poet; and reciprocally, a poet is a scientist of more imaginative and creative hypotheses.” The first assertion could be true, I suppose, but the second is probably not and appears to be present just to provide symmetry, and not any real information. Even the central thesis that by using analogy scientists are being poetic is probably not really accurate, since it appears that analogy is a basic cognitive process and the way that scientists use this device is much different from its application by a poet.

In the end, though, Roberts’ article raises an interesting and important idea, and due to its fundamental nature, the use of analogy in science surely deserves more attention. So, if scientists have to use analogy to understand the complex concepts, use old ideas to grasp new ones, does that mean that we’re just uncreative people, incapable of understanding any thing too difficult without a little “help”? Maybe so, but it’s wired into us. The unexplained and unknown are difficult for humans to deal with, and analogy seems to be a natural way for use to cut into the otherwise impenetrable darkness, to make the unfamiliar familiar. Rarely, if ever, does a new idea materialize out of thin air. Instead it needs a basis in the known, a nucleus from which to grow. I would argue that this is as true in the humanities as in the sciences.

If you still think scientists aren’t creative, though, just ask one of your scientist friends to explain his or her work to you. Chances are, you’ll be in store for some interesting, even bizarre, analogies.

Thanks go to Cyrus for sending me the Toronto Star article.


  1. #1 Benjamin Cohen
    August 2, 2006

    Wait — did you do that on purpose?

    if scientists have to use analogy to understand the complex concepts, use old ideas to grasp new ones, does that mean that we’re just uncreative people, incapable of understanding any thing too difficult without a little “help”? Maybe so, but it’s wired into us.

    “It’s wired into us?” Using human-made computer metaphors to understand and explain genetic predisposition?

    A nice article (one I was thinking about too, here). Do you think it’s all about creativity?

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    August 2, 2006

    Ha! I think I (intentionally or not) wrote a little more metaphorically than usual in that piece.

    So, is it all about creativity? Yes and no, I guess. The author of the article seems to equate the use of analogy with creativity, which is perfectly valid. On the other hand, one could also say that by using analogies, one avoids having to address anything completely new. I don’t know which of these is more correct. It really depends on how you want to define creativity, but it appears to me that, more than anything else, analogy is a fundamental process people use to figure new things out.

    Hmm… some things don’t change: poetic or not, it looks like creativity might be just too subjective for this scientist to figure out….

  3. #4 Nick Anthis
    August 3, 2006

    I love it: Fibonacci sequence-based poetry. Now, let’s see a non-scientist poet come up with something like that!

  4. #5 Jon K
    August 4, 2006


    “a poet is a scientist of more imaginative and creative hypotheses.” The first assertion could be true, I suppose, but the second is probably not and appears to be present just to provide symmetry, and not any real information.”

    I take exception to how simply you disregard the above assertion. It might be the case that Roberts’ assertion is mere rubbish; or perhaps his comment is a poetic analogy between seemingly unrelated fields.

    Consider that for some, poetry is a way to distill meaning out of life. Rhythm, structure, vocabulary are all loose “formulae”. Certainly there are a great many poets who do nothing but derivative work. Then there are others, who like Coleridge and Wordsworth “discover” new ways of drawing out meaning. In some cases (as is indicated by the “Advertisement” to Coleridge & Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads) the act is deliberate, other times poetic hypothesis can be as haphazard (and messy) as a kid randomly mixing two chemicals in his chemistry set to see what happens.

    Interested in your further thoughts after you read the linked transcription.



    P.S. Apologies for the messy formatting…I can’t figure out how to do the nifty quote formatting…

  5. #6 Nick Anthis
    August 4, 2006

    You definitely have a point, Jon, but I even when I reread it, that statement in the article sounds contrived to me. Although I thought that the idea of a scientist as an “empirical poet” was clever and interesting, the idea of a poet as “a scientist of more imaginative and creative hypotheses” doesn’t seem to have that much substance. Surely poets are trying to get at the fundamental nature of life and they often do experimental things, but I don’t see evidence of a scientific methodology there. Beyond that, I don’t see how their “hypotheses” are “more imaginative and creative.” Instead, I would say that they are just different and more subjective, although of course no less valuable. My statement wasn’t anything against poets. Instead, I was just pointing out an issue with the writing of the article.

    As far as formatting goes, to do the “nifty quote formatting”, just put the quoted text between the “blockquote” tags. When you type it, it should look like this: <blockquote> Your text goes here </blockquote>.

  6. #7 Siobhan Roberts
    August 6, 2006


    A friend pointed out your ongoing discussion about my article nice that it’s generating discussion!

    It is a point well taken regarding my statement:

    “a poet is a scientist of more imaginative and creative hypotheses.”

    While I was trying for some literary symmetry with the sentence, I was also trying to convey meaning and info, and with a bit more thought it might not have seemed so contrived. I think if left as is, “imaginative and creative” should at least be qualified, that is, to acknowledge the stereotype or presumption in suggesting scientists aren’t imaginative or creative. Better yet, I believe a simple solution would indeed be to say:

    “a poet is a scientist of more subjective hypothesis”

    And yes, it’s perhaps a reaching metaphor to suggest that poets are scientists, but then again they do investigate and parse and ponder the world in hopes of explaining it and getting at truth, so I think on some level it works.

    Siobhan Roberts

  7. #8 Nick Anthis
    August 7, 2006

    Good point, and I really enjoyed the article. It was refreshing to see someone writing about a topic that scientists don’t even discuss too much.

  8. #9 Dano
    August 8, 2006

    Loren Eiseley is my personal favorite.



  9. #10 Jon
    August 9, 2006

    Thanks for the advice on formatting, Nick!

    I see that the issue isn’t so much with the symmetry as it is with the qualifier “more imaginative and creative”. I certainly won’t argue that point, nor will I suggest that poetic experimentation is methodical most of the time, but it can be…and I thought it was a really interesting description. Thanks for sharing it (and thanks to Roberts for putting it into words).



  10. #11 Siobhan Roberts
    August 9, 2006

    Ashamed to say I wasn’t aware of Loren Eiseley’s work I’m going to look him up. Lewis Thomas is nice lyrical science writer.

    A recent metaphor of sorts in math/science I’ve encountered and written about in the Globe and Mail is Princeton mathematicians John Conway and Simon Kochen’s Free Will Theorem, which claims to prove that free will exists, using mathematics, specifically geometry, and skirting quantum mechanics. While some, philosophers and physicists in particular, would prefer to say they have disproved (or refuted) the hidden variables theory or proved indeterminism, they make the anthropomorphic metaphor to free will a central part of their argument.

    I can’t link to the piece since a paid subscription is required to read in full, but here is the kicker, quoting Conway and Kochen, who themselves can be quite literary and lyrical:

    “I deliberately and tendentiously and provocatively used the term free will for the particles,” said Conway, “for the very good reason that the theorem itself shows it to be the same property that has always been called ‘free will’ for people.

    “I think that’s a good thing to do, to tell people they are the same. People don’t like the idea, and they never have, of equating a human property with a non-human one. However, I think it would be silly to have our theorem say that ‘if people have free will, then particles have indeterminacy.’ ”

    “There is no essential difference,” Kochen says. “We’re not talking about free will as a moral decision, about good and evil, or whether or not you should divorce your wife. If the experimenter’s choice is to be called free will, I don’t see why one may not use ‘free will’ for the same property of the particle.”

    “The world is a wonderful, willful place,” Conway says, getting a bit philosophical himself. “Where does free will come from? Well, we’re made of particles. So probably, somehow, our own free will is derived from that of the particles we’re made of. . . .

    “The theorem renders it extremely plausible that somewhere in our brains there is a way of distilling the willfulness of the universe. We obtain our free will, I believe, from the willfulness we have proved is all over the world.”

    Anyway, I’ve run on a bit of a tangent.

    Very happy to have found the Scientific Activist!


  11. #12 Nick Anthis
    August 10, 2006

    Yes, that is fascinating stuff, and I had a friend in chemistry give a little presentation on it a few months ago. I’m on vacation right now, but when I get back, I’m going to have to look into it again.

  12. #13 yash
    September 19, 2006

    In my opinion, scientists need analogy to put baby steps forward in their investigation otherwise they may find their discovery too overwhelming at times. not only that analogy doesnot shock the listeners too. so anything that helps is welcome

  13. #14 Emily Schettler
    February 27, 2007

    hi my name is emily im 12 years old and the reason i looked at this wed page was because i like poetry and science and i wanted to see if there is a person that uses both this is such a cool site that it inspired me well i can become a scientifict poet now but when i get older i could so thats how it inspired me and im always looking for some advice if you can please send some