The use of metaphors in science and technology

Guest Post by Rod Pitcher:

Last year Rod wrote one of our most popular posts on the use of metaphor in conveying concepts to students. He followed this one with a post pitched to PhD students, Metaphors and the PhD. A PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the ANU, he returns to the tomtom to share some thoughts on the role of metaphors in science and technology.

Metaphors are widely used in science and technology. They allow explication of new research results by comparing them with old or existing knowledge, which may or may not be scientific.

The old knowledge might be something that is held by everyone. The new knowledge is held by a few who must make it clear to any interested others so that it can be spread throughout the scientific or technological community. Science communicators do the same for the public. Often the ideas are so new that without using metaphors it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to explain them.

How to explain a new invention

A new technology, like a computer network, needs to be explained to people who have no knowledge of it. In this case, one can talk about the ‘web’ of the network, comparing it to a spider’s web, either by drawing diagrams or showing the person a real spider’s web. Thus the principal involved in how the points of the network are interconnected can be made clear to anyone who has ever seen a spider’s web.

Using metaphors in teaching science and technology

There is the need then for compelling and accurate metaphors to communicate the new knowledge to students. The use of metaphors makes it easier for an audience to grasp the principal of the thing.

Metaphors not only allow the knowledge to be passed on but also help in developing the vocabulary of the discipline, since many of the words used in science and technology are directly derived from the metaphors used to illustrate the concepts.

For instance, in talking about electricity we can describe electrons passing along a wire and make the comparison to water flowing through a pipe. The words ‘flow’ and ‘current’ used to describe moving water help us to describe electrons moving through a conductive metal. Thus in learning this metaphor the student has also learnt some scientific words. In the case of ‘current’ there will be more for students to learn and of course many ways in which the the uses of ‘flow’ and ‘current’ differ depending on the discipline.

This process is not unique to the sciences. We can see how other fields use scientific processes as metaphors for human or social phenomena. When we talk about a ‘groundswell’ of public support, a candidate’s ‘momentum’, or a particular issue as a ‘lightning rod’, we are using images from the scientifically described world as a kind of descriptive shorthand.

What about bad metaphors?

The provisional nature of knowledge means that that we should also be careful about how we use metaphors; reminding students that ‘the map is not the territory’. Bohr’s model of the atom and Copernicus’ model of the Solar System were better metaphors than what had come before, but they remain provisional representations — they are now used for beginners in the field, steps along the way to more complex analogies.

Why so many metaphors in science and technology?

Science and technology, then, are prolific users of metaphors. It’s difficult to imagine any part of science or technology that doesn’t use them somewhere in its explanations of what is going on.

You can imagine a number of metaphors that might apply in a description of the luminescence depicted on the left. Depending on the audience’s existing knowledge of chemical reactions and electronic states, a teacher or lecturer could convey the processes at work here in a number of ways. Describing Bohr’s ‘planetary model’ of the atom would be a useful first step.

Metaphors allow explanations to be constructed that can be understood by anyone with a little effort. If all teaching of science or technology, or spreading of information about their results, was done using only non-metaphorical scientific words there would be a lot less people who had any knowledge of what it all means, including many scientists and technologists!

Rod Pitcher is a PhD student whose focus of study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research. His last two posts on the tomtom can be found here. and here. Rod’s profiles are at:

http://chelt.anu.edu.au/people/rod-pitcher and http://scholar.google.com.au/citations?hl=en&user=4vZSJT4AAAAJ

The images in this post are from a 2008 series of photographs, “Fluorescence of lucigenin” © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky.

Share your thoughts about the use of metaphors in your discipline in the comments below!

One thought on “The use of metaphors in science and technology

  1. Good work showing how metaphor helps in conceptualizing scientific theories and terms. Can you suggest how it could contribute to enhancing the literal language proficiency in specialized disciplines?

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