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April 6, 2012 / lindsayd20374453

Like a truckload of kittens: The dangers and opportunities of metaphorical writing.

ImageIt seems appropriate that on Easter, I’m reading about eggs. Human eggs, not chicken eggs. But then again, Easter isn’t really about eggs, but what the eggs represent : an analogy, a symbol for the beginning of new life. The eggs are being used as a method for explaining a difficult concept, using evidence with which we are familiar.

It’s the same technique being used by N. Angier in “Unscrambling the Egg” – but instead of using the egg as a metaphor to explain something, Angier is using a raft of metaphors to explain the human egg itself. The idea behind the use of metaphors is a simple one: when trying to illustrate a new concept to an audience, you extend what they know to what they will know. Metaphors and analogies are a powerful tool, allowing the author to paint vivid, familiar pictures in the reader’s mind, creating a lasting impression.

Angier’s article shows metaphors at their best, and at their worst. At times, the imagery allows for strong, lasting descriptions of complex concepts. Other times, Angier’s prose becomes so overburdened with metaphors that it becomes impossible to work out her message– rather than creating a clear, vivid image, it creates confusion.

Compare these two passages to see what I mean.

Describing a microscope image of an egg:

“Surrounding the great globe that glows silver-white on the screen is a smear of what looks like whipped cream, or the fluffy white clouds found in every child’s sketch of a sky.”

These metaphors paint a crisp image in the readers’ mind. But it’s more than that: Instead of simply saying something is like another thing (the car is red like a red apple), the comparison draws a deeper, richer inference. The image of a child drawing a fluffy white cloud not only describes what the egg looks like, but forms a link in the readers’ mind between the picture on the screen, and the potential of the egg itself: a living, breathing human child. Here, the metaphor not only visually describes the scientific concept, but creates an emotional attachment to the concept- one not easily forgotten. Such is the potential of figurative writing.

Unfortunately, we can see its downfalls in another passage.

Describing a doctor:

“As an infertility expert, Bustillo is a modern Demeter, a harvester and deft manipulator of human eggs, a magician in a minor key”.

This sentence, while undeniably nice to read, is a maelstrom of confusing images. In one sentence, Bustillo is a doctor, a Greek goddess (after a quick Wikipedia check), a farmer, a magician, and a musician (as a side note, why a minor key? Is her job scary?). This sentence demands a lot from the reader, while offering nothing but confusion in return. My mental image of Bustillo is of an ‘80s hair metal guitarist, holding a hoe, wearing a labcoat and a wizard hat. I don’t think that’s what Angier was trying to say.

So we can see that analogies and metaphors, used properly, are powerful tools. But as science communicators, we must always remember that above flowery writing and clever wordplay, content is king. The message must always come first. But what do you think? Am I being too harsh on Angier’s descriptions, did they work for you? How much metaphor is too much?

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10 Comments

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  1. mmaideni / Apr 6 2012 11:48 am

    Lindsay, I like the way you have analysed the Author, Angier’s way of using analogies and metaphors. You have cleverly outlined the good in the use of the analogies and metaphors and also tried to shed more light the problems the writer can face using the story to explain a science topic.

    Personally, I liked the story as it reminds me as a woman what goes on with the egg that brings life of a human being. Also it reminds me a as a mother to encourage the girl growing into puberty from an egg through fetal stage of development. Then she becomes a full term girl happy in life when she sees herself through the mirror. This causes her to appreciate her journey of life into a human being.

    Angier’s story managed to keep me glued to reading to the end (I had to forgo my lunch) because of the use of language to capture the wider aspect of the target group. In it I find many things interesting to read because at times I see a girl who does not have a baby yet but she can make good money out of being a donor to a couple who are not able to experience their parenthood and thereby giving them a chance though not for free, but money well spent in the end. The woman I visualise in this story is the one who has reached menapause, is happily married to a husband whose physiological make up does not cease to produce the seed (sperm) which they can join to an egg to make life at any stage of his life.

    Also I like the analogy of this kind of donation as it is likened to donating, say a pint of ones blood to save a life. I can also appreciate that though involving the process of becoming a donor, it is rewarding to note that your contibution made a difference in somebody’s life. Deborah the young girl, the donor is to mother a child whom she will not have chance to see but brings happiness to a family. Then I compared the many eggs Deborah should have shed during her menstruation period and going the drain without supporting a life of a human being. This is a commendable act of humanity that is made available through science.

    I also liked the metaphoric description of egg as the globe and taking the colour of the universe, the clouds ‘silvery white’ on the video screen like a ‘whipped cream’. The definitely draws the attention of child and hence brings attention to this kind of target group of readers. Agiers has also interested me by describing egg using ‘corona radiata’ of the egg a celestial feature, the sun luminating from the central orbit of the universe. The ‘corona’ acting as the platform steering the sperms to the egg.

    It is also interesting to learn more features of a human being’s egg, which I never thought had a shell like that of a bird’s egg. Essentially it demonstrates the selective barrier this kind of egg shell has, the ‘zona pellucida’ which poses as a protection for the egg by identifying who is a ‘friend’ or not. This is recognised by the writer as a motherly protection of the baby.

    I have learnt new things through analogical and mertaphorical presentation in that there is a difference between the life for sperm production compared to the egg which ceases at a point and this encourages scientists or the public to support fertility issues without unnecessary bias.. There is a simplified explanation of the connection of the egg life to cancer which I also did not know before. “It metapholically explains how cancer cells live longer than the patient.” Look at how the writer explains the body reclaims the egg and not the sperm. This is good. There also is an urge for the egg to expect more hard work than the sperm in life genesis or evolution, which otherwise controversial to remain scientific.

    I would say that you have asked the question of how much is the too much of a metaphor ? Yes it is too much for somebody who is not humourus enough to hold on as I have been. I think the writer did use this much just to give the readers a variety of listenership. You have clearly described the writer, Angier asat 80’s of age that is why I think he/she wants to explain a little bit more in order to cover a wider range of target group thereby showing how far his own life has experienced the science of an egg.

    All in all I have like the way have dispatched Angiers science writing

  2. baileymoser / Apr 7 2012 3:50 am

    Excellent, excellent blog post! I liked the passages you chose for comparison–they proved your point well and I had very similar perceptions. Except, my image of the doctor was *completely* different than yours, just showing how easily the author’s goal was lost in the flowery image. So no, you are not being too harsh, in my opinion.

  3. kflint93 / Apr 7 2012 8:11 am

    I really enjoyed this blog post – a thorough consideration of the benefits and downfalls of analogies. Your final paragraph concludes with the most important point for us bloggers here on the ‘Science Writing’ blog.

    Accuracy is our priority as science communicators. From personal experience, I know that metaphors assist me in learning (I am definitely a ‘visual’ learner). You alluded to this a couple of times in your post. That being said, they are only useful if, a) they are understood (another point you explored well) and, b) they convey the correct message – something I thought perhaps was lacking in your blog. I believe it is extremely difficult to compose a metaphor that entirely encapsulates a scientific concept and, when used as numerously as Angier does, undoubtedly not all of them will be accurate. These metaphors are bound to be interpreted in numerous ways, and many audience members may come to conclusions not intended by the author. In this way, metaphors can be very dangerous in science communication.

  4. noelynn / Apr 8 2012 1:16 am

    “How much metaphor is too much?” how about your choice of the topic for this post? I guessed you’ve answered this question in your post. While the use of metaphors is powerful, sometimes it becomes confusing. This is a case where it is overused. The key message is not clearly communicated, or perhaps the very choice of the specific metaphor is not appropriately used.
    The extreme example you posed was a typical one that probably obscured the main message and the metaphor in turn did not serve its purpose well or was not appropriate.
    So a scientific message can still be communicated using metaphors that relate familiar settings and experiences. After all, like you pointed metaphores attempts to make connections between the known and the unknown or what you are going to unveil as new knowledge.

    Overall, the post was brief and sharp. Good work!

  5. lachlanpetersen / Apr 9 2012 11:05 am

    First of all, I love your headline.
    And I really liked your intro paragraph, and intentional or otherwise, the segue used to link your Easter comment to the topic was very cunning, as segues can often be (mis)used in similar ways to analogies and metaphors. Maybe its just me but a segue puts me in the same head space as an analogy, as a reader. They are both somewhat informal and have a very real function but they could be considered auxiliary, and are often overused or used without purpose.

    I think the rest of your article was, although kind of messy, very concise and managed to talk about how a confusing topic was confusing without being confusing itself.

    I personally love analogies, I think they are an easy way to get a lot of impact and thought out of a reader in a very small space, and so I had no issues with most of Angier’s. But objectively, I feel that your comments are entirely valid.
    You only have too many metaphors when your reader feels you have too many metaphors. So it depends on who you’re writing for.

  6. keikok / Apr 11 2012 11:44 am

    I agree to lachlanpetersen. I liked your headline and a picture.
    As you say, I think we always have to think about the key message before creating the scientific metaphor otherwise the metaphor itself would be confusing to audience.
    It can be said to normal conversations too. Many friends of mine including me of course, use metaphors during their conversations but they sometimes do not make sense at all and listeners have to ask them back what the metaphor meant.
    I think people crate metaphors not to clear the mind of listeners but theirs so that the metaphor makes sense to him/her but sometimes not to listeners.
    However, as science communicators, we need to focus onto audience or readers as well as key messages.
    Good post!!

    • lindsayd20374453 / Apr 16 2012 11:29 am

      Hey Keiko,
      Thanks for the insight, I can see where you’re coming from as regarding metaphors being useful for the communicator as well as the audience. It’s interesting to think about how we grasp concepts in our own mind- usually it’s just a combination of facts that we knew beforehand, built on top of each other – one thing is a modification of another, which is a combination of two other things, etc etc. I’m maybe getting a bit philosophical but I think it goes to what you’re saying about metaphors being important to the communicator. Ultimately it’s important as a communicator to think about the basis for your own knowledge, and be sure to not confuse that with the basis of the audience’s knowledge. Making references to things the audience has never heard of is not going to accomplish much, even though it might make perfect sense to you. It comes down to audience awareness once again.

  7. fullclever / Apr 13 2012 3:13 pm

    Wow, Lindsay! I can tell: you are good!

    Overview, introduction, critical review, conclusion… that is it! Relevance, coherence, quotations well discriminated, clarifying hyperlinks… Even the image I loved! Congratulations!

    I have no comments about most of the critiques because they are really great and relevant. In my opinion this was the best post so far (I’m not comparing to mine, forgive me, I will leave it for you).

    However, perfection is a high demanding condition and I cannot close my eyes for the things I disagree. The last metaphor you criticized is not that difficult to interprete. Actually, is pretty clear: Demeter is the goddess of fertility and harvesting (in agriculture, of course). By logic, she is an harvester and as goddess she is deft and has magical powers. The “minor key” actually refers to the amplitude her work. The doctor does the same thing as the goddess but in a “minor” proportion. She is not a goddess but deserves respect. Actually this is one of the best metaphors ever! Angier was a genious (but don’t worry, so are you).

    Sometimes we shall not just split the phrase in small pieces to interprete because in this case the ‘whole’ is not the sum of the parts. We must see the big picture. One must be careful with some details because the context is really important. You should ignore some features: it has nothing to do with Greece, the Bustillo’s clothes or notes of any music. Think of someone who brings practically the miracle of life.

    Still, I understand perfectly your analysis. Your critique was reasonable. Reading this metaphor requires certain knowledge of Greek Mythology.

    Commenting about your article was a great pleasure, reading was even better and I believe the Easter was inspiring for you.

    Regards

  8. annagardiner / Apr 14 2012 3:56 am

    ahh you write brilliantly! You’re definitely not being too harsh on the author, I got such a dark image from the docotor’s description which confused me as surely her work helps people – and she’s good? I also love how you brought in some current context by mentioning easter.

  9. djasudasen / Apr 27 2012 6:53 am

    I couldn’t agree with fullclever more – this was one of the best posts on this blog so far! It was clear and to the point and you had me laughing out loud in the library (shhhhh!!).

    I too was confused by the Doctor metaphor and thought there were too many visuals happening for me to actually understand what Angier meant.

    I now realise my lack of understanding was not because of an overzealous author but due to my limited knowledge on Greek Mythology! Thanks for your great explanation fullclever. I can tell: you are good too!

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