August 11, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich
Metaphors in science communication: Hits and misses
At the beginning of August, various scientific announcements whizzed past me on Twitter. First, a new room-temperature super-conductor (LK-99 for short), which I just dismissed in my head as hype*, then a new pill that cured cancer, which sounded a bit more plausible. In news coverage of both announcements, the phrase ‘holy grail’ came up, a trope that has been used for a very long time when announcing scientific breakthroughs. It’s what one might call a tired trope, but a trope dished out at regular intervals nevertheless. It’s also a trope that makes me suspicious rather than excited about potential breakthroughs.
However, when reading a bit more about the cancer pill and a tiny bit more about the superconductor, I came across fresh metaphors and I wondered what they achieved in terms of science communication compared to the holy grail metaphor.
The Holy Grail metaphor
Let’s look at the holy grail metaphor first. ‘Holy grail’ was first used in the 14th century for “the platter used by Jesus at the Last Supper, in which Joseph of Arimathea received his blood at the cross” (OED.com).
Nowadays the phrase is employed mostly figuratively, a use that started in 1894, when somebody opined that “The quest of the almighty dollar is their Holy Grail” (OED.com). As Wikipedia says: “By analogy, any elusive object or goal of great significance may be perceived as a ‘holy grail’ by those seeking such.” And Merriam Webster gives as its only example sentence: “Finding a cure for cancer is the holy grail of medical researchers.”
The trope has been used in the bio/life sciences for everything from, of course, the double helix, to stem cells to protein folding, and, of course, cancer. As an article on the metaphor in the Washington Post said in 2007: “Writers love to invoke that miraculous goblet to describe a rare object or a near-unattainable goal.”
The holy grails of physics and of medicine
When skimming news articles on the claim that Korean scientists had invented a superconductor that works at room-temperature, it became clear that superconductivity at room temperature is seen by many as the holy grail of physics. Similarly, for curing ‘all’ cancers. The recent pill announcement, although causing much less of as stir, would indeed be seen, by some, as the holy grail of medicine.
But… in both cases, when reading articles containing this metaphor, we don’t learn a lot about superconductivity or curing cancer. For that, a different type of metaphor has to spring into action. To create such explanatory and/or educational metaphors is difficult. Sometimes scientists and science communicators hit the nail on the head, sometimes they don’t. It should be stressed that the ‘holy grail’ metaphor was only used, it seems, by journalists, not scientists or science communicators.
The dance metaphor and superconductivity
Let’s start with the room-temperature super-conductor. Up to now, superconductors have worked only at very low temperatures, so the invention of a room-temperature one would be a real feat. But what are superconductors? Here is a good explanation by the science communicator Liv Boeree in a video which she ends by saying “we can see why this is the holy grail of physics”. And here is another good explanation in LiveScience without the holy grail:
“A superconductor is a material that achieves superconductivity, which is a state of matter that has no electrical resistance and does not allow magnetic fields to penetrate. An electric current in a superconductor can persist indefinitely.
Superconductivity can only typically be achieved at very cold temperatures. Superconductors have a wide variety of everyday applications, from MRI machines to super-fast maglev trains that use magnets to levitate the trains off the track to reduce friction. Researchers are now trying to find and develop superconductors that work at higher temperatures, which would revolutionize energy transport and storage.”
But that doesn’t really provide me with a memorable mental image of how superconductors actually do their work, at least an image that gives me a feeling of understanding, which is all I ask of science communication. For that we need a bit of creativity. And readers of the Financial Times found it in an article by Anjana Ahuja, entitled, “New superconductor frenzy seems too super to be true”. In a tweet about it, Kate Bevan said: “FT knocking it out of the park this morning: this para in a fab piece about superconductor frenzy, by @anjahuja, is a masterpiece of science communication”. So, what does a masterpiece of science communication look like? Ahuja describes superconductivity in the following way?
“An electrical current, essentially a flow of electrons, is a messy affair — a bit like a dance floor of rowdy partygoers attempting a conga. But below a critical temperature, many materials become superconducting: the electrons abruptly pair up and begin to move smoothly. It is as if the partygoers disappear amid clouds of dry ice — and instantly reappear as pairs of ballroom dancers gliding effortlessly in unison.”
Is that the holy grail of superconductor communication? It may well be! I should say, however, that the dance metaphor for superconductivity is not entirely new. You can find other examples of it here and here, but they are less concise… There is even talk of swing dancing or line dancing.
The snowstorm metaphor for a targeted cancer drug
What about the other holy grail, which provoked much less of a frenzy, the pill to cure all cancers?
Researchers at City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles have recently made some important claims (here is the press release). Namely, that a molecule called AOH1996 has been shown to inhibit a mutated protein that helps cancer grow and multiply while leaving other cells undamaged. This protein is called ‘proliferating cell nuclear antigen’ or PCNA and it was previously regarded ‘undruggable’. With AOH1996 in a pill it has become ‘druggable’. The pill prevents cells with damaged DNA from dividing while not damaging healthy cells. It seems to be effective on quite a variety of cancers but whether that means that ‘all’ cancers can be ‘cured’ in this way is another matter (not all cancers are, I think, PCNA mutant cancers). But after decades of research, this is a great step forward.
The Daily Express, one of the first to use the holy grail metaphor on 1 August when announcing this advance, quotes a collaborator in this study who used two metaphors to explain what was going on, metaphors (comparisons) also used in the original press release (highlighted here in italic).
“Dr Linda Malkans, who has helped pioneer the decades-long cancer research at City of Hope’s Department of Molecular Diagnostics and Experimental Therapeutics, explained how the cell could destroy unhealthy cells while leaving healthy ones untouched.
She said: ‘PCNA is like a major airline terminal hub containing multiple plane gates. Data suggests PCNA is uniquely altered in cancer cells, and this fact allowed us to design a drug that targeted only the form of PCNA in cancer cells.
‘Our cancer-killing pill is like a snowstorm that closes a key airline hub, shutting down all flights in and out only in planes carrying cancer cells.’”
One news report on this announcement is therefore even illustrated with an iced-over plane. However, I could not form a mental image of the workings of this new drug. I could not even achieve a feeling of understanding.
I asked a science friend to explain the metaphor to me. They said that it was rather confusing and also didn’t really encapsulate the simple message that ‘Cells are killed selectively if they contain a certain altered chemical’. This was their reaction:
“Are these ‘hubs’ in different cities? Or, if they are the ‘star’ terminal buildings on one airport (are those ‘hubs’?), how does snow shut one of them selectively?
If the snowstorm ‘closes a key airline hub, shutting down all flights’, how come the planes not carrying cancer cells can still operate there?
And if it works selectively, how does the snow know to block certain planes depending on the nature of their cargo? (Pretty smart snow, that.) And how does it do that by closing a whole hub?
AND it sounds as though the cancer cells are on the move (wrong?), and the drug acts by stopping them from reaching their destination (wrong?), which makes them die”…
So, that metaphor seems to be a bit of a science communication fail. But other people with different background knowledge might react to it differently.
Science communication is not easy. It’s an art form. Science and art should both leave you with a mental image you can savour and retell.
*It seems my hunch was right. As Stuart Richie points out “Several studies have come back finding that LK-99 is not, in fact, a room-temperature superconductor”.
Now that the dust has settled, you can read this detailed account of what was going on there in this article by Philip Ball.
Image: Couple dancing on snow-covered road (Pexels)
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