If you are going to use a metaphor/analogy when you’re writing about a science topic because you want to reach beyond an audience that’s expert on the topic you’re covering or you want to grab attention from an audience that’s inundated with material, or you want to play (for writers, this can be a form of play [for this writer, anyway]), I think you need to remain true to your metaphor. I realize that’s a lot tougher than it sounds.
I’ve got examples of the use of metaphors/analogies in two recent pieces of science writing.
First, here’s the title for a Jan. 23, 2012 article by Samantha Chan for The Asian Scientist,
Scientists Build DNA Rail System For Nanomotors, Complete With Tracks & Switches
Then, there’s the text where the analogy/metaphor of a railway system with tracks and switchers is developed further and abandoned for origami tiles,
Expanding on previous work with engines traveling on straight tracks, a team of researchers at Kyoto University and the University of Oxford have used DNA building blocks to construct a motor capable of navigating a programmable network of tracks with multiple switches.
In this latest effort, the scientists built a network of tracks and switches atop DNA origami tiles, which made it possible for motor molecules to travel along these rail systems.
Sometimes, the material at hand is the issue. ‘DNA origami tiles’ is a term in this field so Chan can’t change it to ‘DNA origami ties’ which would fit with the railway analogy. By the way, the analogy itself comes from (or was influenced by) the title the scientists chose for their published paper in Nature Nanotechnology (it’s behind a paywall),
A DNA-based molecular motor that can navigate a network of tracks
All in all, this was a skillful attempt to get the most out of a metaphor/analogy.
Ten-second dance of electrons is step toward exotic new computers
This sets up the text for the first few paragraphs (found in both the Princeton news release and the Nanowerk news item),
In the basement of Hoyt Laboratory at Princeton University, Alexei Tyryshkin clicked a computer mouse and sent a burst of microwaves washing across a silicon crystal suspended in a frozen cylinder of stainless steel.
The waves pulsed like distant music across the crystal and deep within its heart, billions of electrons started spinning to their beat.
Reaching into the silicon crystal and choreographing the dance of 100 billion infinitesimal particles is an impressive achievement on its own, but it is also a stride toward developing the technology for powerful machines known as quantum computers.
Sullivan has written some very appealing text for an audience who may or may not know about quantum computers.
Somebody on Nanowerk changed the headline to this,
Choreographing dance of electrons offers promise in pursuit of quantum computers
Here, the title has been skilfully reworded for an audience that knows more quantum computers while retaining the metaphor. Nicely done.
Sullivan’s text goes on to provide a fine explanation of an issue in quantum computing, maintaining coherence, for an audience not expert in quantum computing. The one niggle I do have is a shift in the metaphor,
To understand why it is so hard, imagine circus performers spinning plates on the top of sticks. Now imagine a strong wind blasting across the performance space, upending the plates and sending them crashing to the ground. In the subatomic realm, that wind is magnetism, and much of the effort in the experiment goes to minimizing its effect. By using a magnetically calm material like silicon-28, the researchers are able to keep the electrons spinning together for much longer.
Wasn’t there a way to stay with dance? You could have had dancers spinning props or perhaps the dancers themselves being blown off course and avoided the circus performers. Yes, the circus is more colourful and appealing but, in this instance, I would have worked to maintain the metaphor first introduced, assuming I’d noticed that I’d switched metaphors.
So, I think I can safely say that using metaphors is tougher than it looks.