Friday, August 25, 2006


Yes, I know, it's 'metaphor', but after listening to Joseph Campbell talking for hours about metafers -- abstracted Jennifers, I'm sure -- that circuit's fried.

Anyway. I've been thinking about science metaphors and the agonies over poetic writers retailing bad metaphors. By 'bad' I mean scientifically inaccurate.

It seems to me there are at least two kinds of science metaphors, though, that we're talking about. One is the sort of metaphor that helps a scientist explain their work; for instance, nanotech people have conferences with illustrators so they can generate visual metaphors for the work. Something people can understand. So this is metaphor that's about what's happening in the lab.

But I think there is another kind of metaphor, one that's rather looser about the science, and it's to do with how science filters through in ordinary lives, in the way that Roberta experiences it, say. Updike did something memorable with it in Rabbit Redux, I think, where the elder Mrs. Angstrom is on L-dopa for Parkinson's, and there's a long dank frightening section involving the plumbing in her mind, and backed-up sewers. I'll find and quote it. I suppose you could call it the subjective experience of science as it's lived. If you wanted to be particularly boring about it. I think Updike did better, though, in creating an iconic turn-you-to-stone image in Toward the End of Time
: the half-built international space station, a ghostly, unshakable moon in the daytime sky, abandoned as war broke out, and those aboard left to die. A permanent reminder of Not Finishing and the cruelty. Let me see if I can find Updike's description, which is no doubt better:

...If the first occupies, like the sun, a half-degree of the celestial hemisphere's 180 degrees, this second is no wider than a sixth of a degree. It has a honeycomb appearance, with a pair of scarcely visible appendages, stubby dragonfly wings.

This moon was man-made -- a space station set in orbit three thousand miles above the Earth, one-hundredth of the first moon's distance, by men before the Sino-Aerican Conflict dissolved the governments able to maintain the shuttle ships. Earth abandoned its satellite, and the colonists marooned there survived for a time amid their tons of provisions and their solar-powered greenhouses. Then, as the world watched in horror the television broadcasts that were maintained with the generators' last volts of energy, the space-dwellers one by one died. This episode, beocme mythic, has inspired any number of bathetic retellings in the popular media, even if all of us who dwell on Earth are in a position exactly the same, if on a larger scale. Indeed, it is not impossible that the colony, in its giant honeycomb of hollow struts and exquisitely stretched sheets of insulating foil, still holds a few live crewpersons, surviving on protein tablets....

That's richer, anyway. I do think it's time for "watched in horror" to go away. I just used that in a mawkish lead-in to a piece on Feynman's Challenger O-ring demo, a piece on summarizing for a 9th-grade textbook. Funny thing, the K-12 ed biz, picking someone like me to teach summarizing. Illustrative of the problems, I'd say.

Anyway. It's nice, isn't it, that space station. Nothing new about ghost ships, but they're a little 17th-c, and lose meaning. Especially when they're not hanging in the sky every day. In this one you get the colonizing-space excitement, and the technical prowess, and their daily lived reality, while below the ordinary, dirty old Updike protag crunches around in his frozen Boston suburb, conscious of his age and the sense of having seen plenty, and not primarily concerned with outer space.

So what have scientists to do with all that? Well, I don't know. It seems to me there ought to be at least some looking back from good fictional science-as-it's-lived (SAIL) metaphor to fresh-from-the-lab (FFTL) metaphor. And some conversation between them. I bet there's some pretty good dissonance there, routinely. How would that be useful? Good question. Not sure yet. But it does seem to me that if the SAIL metaphor is going to be coherent and incisive – because one way or the other, I think, it’s going to be a critique, or fodder for critique -- it ought to envelop a crisp understanding of the FFTL metaphor and anything that’s crucial to understanding the science.


Anonymous said...

I suspect you are misusing the word "metaphor" here, and are actually writing about poorly developed "analogies."

We often simplify the description of something in describing it "by way of example." An analogy is when something is like something else, however loosely. And I dislike poor analogies as much as you do. The structure of an atom is not at all like the structure of a solar system, and Bohr himself, who introduced that particluar "image," used it only for moments in a conversation as a leaping off point for a far more indepth series of observations.

A metaphor is when something "is" something else. For instance, "She is the sun and the moon and the very stars."


Amy Charles said...

I think you're right. Partly.

The fresh-from-the-lab (FFTL) descriptions are often cast as analogy, yes, I agree. The idea is to get across what this new thing is, how it works, what it might be used for.

Though I wonder if metaphor might not be appropriate when the question is "what new understanding of the world does this thing give us?"

On the literary end, I think we're still talking about metaphor. What's the meaning of this new thing? The abandoned space station, for instance, is floating metaphor, not analogy.

I suspect there's a sharper distinction between the scientific & literary descriptions. And now that I think about it, it seems to me science journalism uses both analogy and metaphor.



Thanks for that, btw.