Interactive metaphors

At the September 14th Salon, attendees delved into the topic of Metaphor in Science, guided by co-moderators Leah Ceccarelli, a Professor in Communication, and myself, a PhD student in Public Health Genetics. As the first Genomics Salon held in the Simpson Center for the Humanities, it was a successful gathering of varied disciplinary backgrounds and experiences — a metaphorical bringing together of upper, lower, and outside campus.

As a rhetorical scholar, Leah studies public discourse about science, which keeps bringing her back to metaphor. She gave Salon attendees a taste of her 2013 book “On the Frontier of Science: An American Rhetoric of Exploration and Exploitation,” which examines the promises and pitfalls of the frontier metaphor of science. For example, sequencing the human genome in the 1990’s and early 2000’s was cast as a “mapping” expedition, akin to fulfilling the manifest destiny of the American frontier. This metaphor portrayed the Human Genome Project as individualistic, male, and competitive, which ironically was in stark contrast to the actuality of the massive international collaboration required to complete it.

My foray into studying metaphor was more recent, in the form of my Master’s thesis in Public Health Genetics in 2013-4. Intrigued by the dominant metaphors about the genome such as “blueprint,” “map,” and “recipe,” I wondered if increasing access to personal genetic information (e.g., via consumer genomic testing or clinical sequencing) would lead to new metaphorical framings.


Metaphor of “the genome is a map.” Credit: The Economist

Many people think of metaphors as conscious – even artistic – linguistic choices that people make. This isn’t necessarily wrong, and indeed reflects the conception of metaphor traced back to Aristotle, who wrote that in the rhetorical arts, “the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor.” The modern, cognitive perspective on metaphor, however, recognizes it as intrinsic to not only how we speak, but how we think, feel, and act. What this means in practice for metaphor scholars is that metaphors are not handed to you on a plate. Rather, you have to study texts, identify fragments of metaphorical language, and from there work backwards to construct or articulate the underlying metaphorical concept.

Metaphors interact: vehicle and tenor

Leah demonstrated this practice to Salon attendees with a classic example from metaphor scholars Lakoff and Johnson, the metaphor “argument is war.” We rarely say that exact phrase out loud, but rather draw upon it when we say things like “taking sides,” “hold your ground,” or “defend a position” in an argument. Each part of the metaphor, “argument” and “war,” have commonplaces, or things you link with them.  The associated commonplaces are those that arise when you put the two ideas together. The metaphorical vehicle, “war,” highlights some aspects of its subject or tenor, “argument” (e.g., hostility and rivalry)  while simultaneously deflecting others (e.g., reason and deliberation). It’s the interaction of these two parts of the metaphor, the tenor and vehicle, that do the metaphorical heavy-lifting. However, as is clear from this example, the interaction of vehicle with tenor and the subsequent enhancement or erosion of aspects of the tenor can be problematic.

Metaphors interact: metaphor and audience

Another layer of interaction that occurs with metaphor is that of metaphor and audience. Specially, people bring their unique background knowledge and assumptions to a metaphor, which will inevitably shape how they view or interpret it. For example, at the Salon we had attendees work through example metaphors from my thesis project, as an exercise in identifying and articulating metaphorical concepts as “X is Y.” The text came from interviews and focus groups conducted in a research study trying to understand people’s willingness to participate in genomic research and their interest in receiving information back about their genomes. (Note these were spontaneous uses of metaphorical language.) One participant said that she would be interested to receive information back about her genome: “…it would be nice to know, I guess I’m thinking of credit score like, here’s your credit score and here’s how you can improve it.”

Salon attendees had strong and conflicting reactions to this metaphor. Some participants thought it was a dangerous oversimplification of genetic information, that it could be boiled down to one number of overall risk. Others thought it was useful in that it points out the evolving nature of genetic information – that the meaning might be unknown today but  later clarified or updated through further research. Others viewed the metaphor positively because it suggests that, like credit scores, genetic information can seem mysterious and impenetrable, something people would need a lot of guidance to unpack. The conversation around this metaphor made one thing clear: the associated commonplaces of “Genetic information is a credit score” manifested differently for different people, perhaps based on their preexisting ideas about genetics and/or credit scores.

Metaphors in practice

Once you start looking for metaphorical language, you see and hear it everywhere. What is not always so obvious, however, is the underlying metaphorical concept, or the “X is Y” statement. I’m interested to hear how you hear and see metaphorical language in your daily work or research. Please drop me a line here and tell me your metaphors! Myself and co-Salon organizer Jolie Carlisle may follow-up with you for a subsequent article that dives deeper into the metaphors we work with and experience on a daily basis.


Science, art, and proofs without words

One of my favorite examples of science and art is easy to mistake for a piece of floor tile:


Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY

But I don’t just like it for decoration. The regular pattern of colored squares is meant to represent a mathematical relationship. Specifically, it shows the odd numbers theorem, which states that the sum of consecutive odd numbers, starting from 1, is a perfect square.

To see it, start from the black square on the bottom left, and move up and out. Count how many small squares make up the larger squares made by adding each new row. Like this:


On the left, the innermost square has just 1 square.

1 = 1*1

Adding the next ring, of 3 white squares, gives us a larger square with area 4.

1 + 3 = 4 = 2*2

The next ring of black squares adds 5 to this total.

1 + 3 + 5 = 9 = 3*3

And so on. Each ring of black or white squares is an odd number. Adding them all up, starting from 1, gives you a square. There you have it: the odd numbers theorem.

This picture is an example of what’s called a proof without words. The idea is that a single, well-designed image can demonstrate a mathematical truth. It’s like the logical equivalent of a picture being worth a thousand words.

I find it beautiful and compelling that images can say so much about something like math. Of course, math and beauty have been interlinked since the Greeks. Simple mathematical relationships can be found (though sometimes spuriously) in the contours of pasta and the spirals of seashells. The idea of a proof without words points to something important: mathematicians and scientists are intensely visual. Our work is imbued with a sense of aesthetics. A good proof or experiment is not just rigorous, it is elegant, and beautiful.

This thinking was part of the motivation behind the discussion that fellow grad student Sam Entwisle and I led on August 31, on the relationship between science and art. Science and art are often thought of as being diametrically opposed. Some people even relegate them to opposite hemispheres of the brain–logical operations on the left, creative thinking on the right. But science and art have historically informed and inspired each other. We wanted to explore this relationship in the past and present.

We hoped to invite artists to our discussion and to look at actual pieces of art. We were lucky to have local artists and illustrators Tami Tolpa, Kate Thompson, and Susan Zoccola to help us prepare for and guide the discussion. Together, we curated a collection of images showing some of the many ways that science and art can interact.

Our full collection and the descriptions are online, but here are some highlights. I hope these images leave you feeling like I did–curious, thoughtful, and inspired.

Some images like Audubon’s illustrations or images from the Hubble Space Telescope draw directly from nature.

Illustrations can pave the ways for new ways of seeing. Andreas Vesalius’s detailed, realistic drawings in De humani corporis fabrica libri septem revolutionized the study of anatomy.


Credit: Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, via Wikimedia Commons

Illustrations and infographics today play a similar role in science education and communicaton. Here’s one early infographic by Edward Minard that summarizes the troop losses of Napoleon’s campaign of 1812 (it’s been lauded by modern information scientists as well).


Credit: Edward Minard, via Wikimedia Commons


Similarly, comics combine narratives and images to explore scientific concepts in creative and engaging ways.


Credit: Maki Naro, The Antibody

Under the mantle of BioArt, some artists are using biological materials directly within their works. Some of these materials may be familiar to scientists. Scientists since Alexander Fleming have used microbes to “paint” images in petri dishes, and the American Society for Microbiology even holds an annual Agar Art contest to showcase these microbial masterpieces.


Credit: Jasmine Temple, Sunset at the End

But some BioArt uses biological materials to raise questions about the role of biotechnology in society. In Paul Vanouse’s work The America Project, visitors to an installation donate their spit, and the artist pools the spit, extracts DNA, and amplifies certain regions using PCR to form familiar images of power, like a crown or a flag.


Credit: Paul Vanouse, The America Project

These pieces of art can have powerful effects. Here’s one image that, in my group at least, provoked perhaps the most visceral reactions (and subsequent discussion).


Credit: Patricia Piccinini, The Naturalist

I’ll end with one of my favorites, an anatomical cross-section “quilled” (rolled together) using Japanese mulberry paper and the gilded edges of old books.


Credit: Lisa Nilsson, Angelico


Recap: Lightning Talks at SoundBio

IMG_20170804_190530Last Friday, five of our salon contributors gave public talks at the SoundBio lab, a nonprofit DIY biology lab in Seattle. These talks were the result of the Talk Stream from this Spring’s Salon SciComm workshop series. Our group worked together to draft and practice a series of presentations for a general audience. Each talk was 5-10 minutes with minimal slides, and were based on topics we each thought would be novel and exciting to science-interested people.

Bryce Taylor, Postdoctoral Fellow

Bryce Taylor

My talk focused on ways model organism research can tell us about ourselves. I focused on how efforts to understand the function of genes in yeast and other model organisms gave us a head start in interpreting the human genome. I then honed in on an example where different versions of human genes were engineered into yeast. This allowed scientists to determine whether certain individuals carried versions with a reduced function that could predispose them to diseases like cancer.

Hannah Gelman, Postdoctoral Fellow

Hannah Gelman

My talk (entitled Driven by Data: A scientist reads the news) was about how anyone can use scientific reasoning to evaluate claims about science made in the popular media. I started by describing the 2011 neutrino speed controversy, in which physicists who observed neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light enlisted the help of the scientific community, including their competitors, to evaluate the accuracy of their findings. In the end, the physics-defying measurement was due to a small error which was found in the collaborative investigation. The reasoning process that the scientists went through when deciding whether to accept the neutrino measurement can be applied by anyone, to any scientific claim (and can be adapted to evaluate lots of other kinds of claims).

1) Is the claim consistent with our expectations? If not, why?
2) What did the study do? Are there any problems with this?
3) Does the study support the claim? If so, are we ready to change our expectations?
With audience participation, we examined a health claim popularized by the New York Times: the “Scientific 7 Minute Workout”. By examining the article text and a few additional publicly accessible resources we were able to conclude that while the study referenced by the New York Times might have been sound, the claims made by the paper were not supported by the study or by other information provided.  We ended by discussing the responsibilities of scientists, journalists, and readers in ensuring that information is conveyed accurately.

Sarah Nelson, Research Scientist

Sarah Nelson
My talk took a critical look at the growing world of the “quantified self:” the way people are increasingly accessing and using personal data to influence their thoughts and actions. I began with an introspective personal anecdote about how I’ve started tracking my daily bike commutes with a smartphone app. Despite years of intrinsically enjoying this part of my routine, I am now drawn to checking my “stats.” I then introduced consumer genomic testing as another type of quantified self activity. I described how customers can access reams of “raw” or uninterpreted genetic data through these tests, which can then be taken to various third-party interpretation tools online. I showed why these interpretations should be taken with a huge grain of salt, despite how fun and interesting they may be. Quantified self technologies will likely continue to grow in the future, so I encouraged the audience to take note of when and why they are engaging in such practices and to ask what other knowledge they might be leaving out.
Seungsoo Kim, PhD Candidate
Seungsoo Kim
My talk explained what a genome is, how it works, and why we should care. We can understand the genome at multiple levels, from being the basis of heredity and why you look like your parents, to being present in each of your many different cells and telling those cells how to do their many different “jobs,” and even to how the physical genome is packaged in three-dimensional space. I used the analogy of a cookbook, where you get some recipes from your mother and others from your father. The recipes in a cookbook represent genes, which are not used by all cells – each cell type has a favorite subset, which it “bookmarks” using epigenetic modifications. Finally, I described a few ways in which the genome’s functions can go wrong in disease, which is one reason we should continue to research how the genome works.


Elizabeth Morton, Postdoctoral Fellow
My talk was on the development and use of green fluorescent protein (GFP) as an imaging technology.  I described how this protein was isolated from a jellyfish native to the Pacific Northwest and explained how GFP finally allowed us to track molecules in living cells, an advancement that eventually led to a Nobel Prize.  I explained a little about the scientists that were involved in the discovery of GFP and their various contributions.  I wrapped up with showing the array of different colors of fluorescent proteins available now, with some brief examples of particularly medically-relevant applications of GFP today.