July 22, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

When the limits of our knowledge collide with the limits of our language: Mixing metaphors around the Higgs Boson

I was sitting in the garden today (in the sunshine!) (Sunday, 22 July), reading the feedback page of New Scientist which featured some amusing metaphors and analogies for the Higgs Boson, which has recently been discovered at CERN. This made me think.

Science and metaphors

Metaphors and analogies are used extensively in science, both in the process of discovery and in the process of communication (theory-constitutive and pedagogical metaphors). Metaphors render the abstract concrete and make the unfamiliar familiar. But there is a twist, and that is ‘knowledge’. The limits of our understanding are set by the limits of our knowledge. That sounds a bit absurd, but let me explain. You have to know something of the so-called ‘source domain’, (e.g. the sun), of a metaphor to understand its so-called ‘target domain’ (e.g., Juliet, as in ‘Juliet is the sun’) and vice versa. Some years ago I gave a talk about metaphor in Germany to an audience of mainly male and middle-aged colleagues. I used a then briefly popular metaphor, namely ‘pop-tart philosophy’, to illustrate some point and found that this metaphor was a complete mystery to my audience as they had never seen a pop-tart, i.e. had no tangible knowledge that would allow them to understand that metaphor (i.e., in this case, a metaphor for quick and easy philosophising on chat shows); so misunderstandings abounded. With the Higgs we also have a problem with the mapping between source and target domain, but the other way round. As we shall see below, knowledge of various source domains (such as parties, jam, bombs) may be available, but knowledge of the target domain, the Higgs, has not yet been fully established, is very complex and can only really be acquired after years of studying physics. This is where mixed metaphors come in, as I’ll argue below. But let us first survey some attempts at creating understanding of the Higgs by mapping various familiar source domains (if not sauce domains) onto the complex issue of the Higgs as a target domain.

Metaphors, analogies and demonstrations

A few days ago, my parents, in their 80s, had watched a programme on German television, where Wolfgang M. Heckl from the Deutsches Museum had tried to explain the Higgs. They rang me up immediately and told me that he had spoken of ‘jam’ and used various props such as Newton’s cradle. The jam, I told them, probably referred to the Higgs field, which has been compared by others to “a kind of cosmic molasses” (see original article here), and, as they told me, the metal balls in the cradle had been planets. My parents were very impressed with this explanation and the demonstration. Although I doubt they really ‘understood’ the Higgs afterwards, they felt real pleasure in trying to do so. This was not the direct aha-Erlebnis or aha- experience you get as a child when somebody tells you that an atom is like a solar system (wrong but intuitively appealing!), but nevertheless the metaphor (accompanied by a demonstration) seemed to work on a certain level. It actually highlighted science as a process of understanding more than science as a product. Which is good.

Other communicators moved away from jam or molasses and built analogies around bombs and giraffes. This may sound absurd but it actually makes some sense when you watch the video. Others still used stories around snowflakes and snowfields, and so on. Here is a Dutch metaphor, where the Higgs becomes a fat brother. Here is a German explanation using a rumour-based metaphor. And so on…….

The whole metaphor extravaganza arguably began way back in 1993 when David Miller, a physicist at University College London, submitted a metaphor ‘as one of the winning entries to a challenge posed by UK Science Minister William Waldegrave: On one sheet of paper, explain what the Higgs boson is and why it’s important to find it.’ Mitchell’s metaphor, which tried to explain the Higgs as a party, became famous and produced a lot of metaphorical off-spring, a good sign of the cognitive fertility of a metaphor.

In one rendition of what some call the ‘ur-party metaphor’ the story is told like this: “Imagine you’re at a Hollywood party. The crowd is rather thick, and evenly distributed around the room, chatting. When the big star arrives, the people nearest the door gather around her. As she moves through the party, she attracts the people closest to her, and those she moves away from return to their other conversations. By gathering a fawning cluster of people around her, she’s gained momentum, an indication of mass. She’s harder to slow down than she would be without the crowd. Once she’s stopped, it’s harder to get her going again. This clustering effect is the Higgs mechanism, postulated by British physicist Peter Higgs in the 1960s.” Many metaphors clustered around that party/celebrity metaphor, involving various celebrities. And in a way, the party, jam, rumour and snow metaphors all illuminated what scientists know about the Higgs from various perspectives or angles.

More poetic attempts at imagining the Higgs or trying to convey that imagining to others can be found here, including references to William Blake and Reiner Maria Rilke!

Some commentators made fun of the use of ‘mixed metaphors’ (or recombinant metaphors!), where, in a sense, you project elements from various ‘source domains’ [parties, bombs, giraffes, jam] onto one ‘target domain’, in this case the Higgs. As every school child knows, you should not mix your metaphors. But mixed metaphors are not always bad. Metaphors in general are essential to the mutual evolution of language and thought. However, metaphors can both highlight and hide, illuminate and obscure, they can work or fall flat. To get a real grasp on a novel phenomenon, multiple metaphors and mixed metaphors may therefore not be such a bad thing.

Mixed metaphors

Recently, linguists interested in metaphor have called for more research into complex, mixed metaphors rather than studying single metaphors in isolation (see section 3 of this article on synthetic biology for references). In authentic texts, metaphors often appear in clusters which might seem to consist of conflicting metaphors. Celeste Condit, working on public understanding of genetics, was the first to point out that readers can flexibly understand a set of seemingly conflicting metaphors as part of an underlying narrative or storyline around genes, for example. Leah Ceccarelli studied the apparently contradictory but actually complementary interaction between mixed metaphors, in particular those of the human genome as a map, a blueprint and a text. She found that these metaphors were used to complement each other, as parts of the wider theme of an expedition to a new scientific frontier. They were part of a broader story. Metaphor researchers now argue that mixed metaphors can be used to strengthen an argument, to attract attention, and to shed light on complex and unfamiliar subject matters.

So, messing around with mixed metaphors is as much part of science communication as using multiple experiments and approaches in science. They are part of the creative process in which science and language, science and public(s), dynamically interact. Sometimes ONE metaphor just isn’t enough (and can even stifle understanding; think of the God particle metaphor), especially when the limits of our knowledge collide with the limits of our language. Linguistic sparks have to fly when forging understanding.

PS December 2012: Ian Sample explains Higgs Boson with a tray, a bag of sugar and some ping pong balls

Image: Metaphor enthusiast (me), visits CERN, 2005

Posted in MetaphorsScienceScience Communication