Opinion: the compatibility of science and metaphor

Scientific metaphor can be found scattered throughout art and entertainment: be it complex, thoughtful and based on understanding of the concept, or simply used for the sound and rhythm of the word in a sentence. There is some debate as to whether science and poetry  can or should intermingle or if they are too different – with the most measured arguments realising that both are a way of understanding the world.

C.P. Snow was a significant voice in the argument against using science as a metaphor. In his 1959 Two Cultures lecture he disparages poets’ attempts to use scientific language as metaphor, stating:

Now and then, one used to find poets conscientiously using scientific expressions, and getting them wrong – there was a time…when ‘polarised light’ was used as though writers were under the illusion that it was a specifically admirable kind of light.” 

There are a few things to note in this statement, which seems at first glance to reek of intellectual snobbery: a scientist unwilling to share specialist language out of context, just because non-specialists have chosen to use it in a way pleasing to them. Firstly, the statement is part of a wider argument that science, at the time of writing, was looked down on and sidelined in preference of classics and ‘traditional’ culture, and as such the general public were very ignorant of scientific advances, in Snow’s view. In this context the quote is less offensive, as Snow does lament the fact art does not reflect science sufficiently, focussing on how this is detrimental to society. He argues, therefore, that given the lack of scientific representation in art, it is unhelpful to reduce it to unrelated metaphor.

This may be understandable, but the view is still problematic insofar as Snow failing to consider that even this level of introduction to technical language could build a pathway to the public being more susceptible to learning about concepts and theories surrounding it. Furthermore, in his lament for the absence of science in art, Snow overlooks Brecht’s The Life of Galileo which premièred in the US in 1947, twelve years before he made these statements.

In terms of these ideas in the present day, a far greater wealth of scientific resources are readily available via the internet, although the same is true for artistic resources. Furthermore, in surveying the most widely used search engine, it is noticeable that volume of searches concerning science has consistently remained smaller than the volume of art-related searches over the last ten years.

science v art interest over time

Of course, there are infinite factors that mean such a graph could not be a reliable measure of public interest in science today, but it’s an interesting view from one perspective. Independently at least, people may want to engage with art more than they do with science, which would suggest a world not so different to the one Snow envisages.

In fact, it barely matters whether the graph is representative. Art, although also an academic discipline, bleeds into entertainment effortlessly – books, films, television, comics, photography – where science stays tied resolutely to education. Possibly, science’s issue lies in the fact that it cannot be truly discussed without reference to fact, and perhaps this is the reason that it’s important that art can assimilate it, so that it can gain a similar level of accessibility.

However, by this logic, scientific metaphors would still be unhelpful if the artists who assimilated the language only used it to illustrate something else: it would assume familiarity and would not illuminate the audience if familiarity was not there. However, there are a number of plays in recent theatre history that use metaphor very effectively and do demonstrate its value in creating a wider audience for science.

Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, for instance, constantly uses metaphor as an aid to explaining scientific concepts. One such example is the explanation of the Uncertainty Principle given by Heisenberg. Frayn begins the monologue by conjuring  a picture of a man walking through a park, and asking what one would see of the man if watching him from a distance. The answer is provided, of course: glimpses of him between lamp-posts and trees. One would not see him all the time. It’s a very simple metaphor, and Frayn uses it to help the audience grasp his next statement, which uses more technical language:

“…that’s what we see in the cloud chamber…a series of collisions between the passing electron and various molecules of water vapour”

Of course, the explanation is incomplete, but reiteration of the concept, and the gentle step from metaphor to theory helps Frayn to impart both this knowledge and much more throughout the play. Stoppard uses a similar technique in Arcadia when comparing iteration, an aspect of chaos theory, to ‘feedback’ – linking what could be seen as daunting mathematics to a familiar concept.

These are just two examples in a vast sea of entertainment, and they by no means prove that C.P. Snow was wrong to worry about the amount of science reflected in art – that is another argument. What they do suggest, however, is that metaphor is a perfectly valid way of beginning to explain science to a non-specialist audience. Metaphor can illustrate theories and translate mathematics into language. True, a metaphor might not capture every nuance and detail, but that is not the point. Metaphors capture people.


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