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.