Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Drug Trials, Avian Flu and the Importance of Metaphor

'...The doctors struggled to keep the men going as they tried to figure out what had gone wrong. They gave the patients steroids and a drug designed to tone down the immune system response, but stopped that drug after they discovered the men in fact had lost immune system cells.

They had transfusions of blood products after their blood started to clot abnormally. Tissue started to die and peeled off at the ends of their fingers...'

A quote from a science fiction novel, perhaps? But no, this happened in London just a few months ago and is reported in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (via Reuters) by Dr. Ganesh Suntharalingam and colleagues about their drug trial. Apparently the patients' immune system went into overdrive, which is similiar to something that happens sometimes in cases of AVIAN FLU.

Just so we know.

I think I'll give up looking at Reuters now. I'm getting depressed. Here, instead is something to cheer the soul - a piece of writing by Professor Roald Hoffmann - poet and playwright...and who just happens to be a Nobel Laureate (for chemistry) too. He writes in this in Scientific American (via The Librarian's Place) about the importance of metaphor in science and in science writing and teaching. He says that too many scientific papers are sanitised because metaphors are thought (mistakenly) to impress no one as they are less rational. This, he believes, is wrong and concludes his piece with the following:

'They have no substance, these mental fetters that constrain metaphor and teaching and narrative in the communication of science. Break them. And when they are gone, still a scientist, you will understand better, see things more clearly, know what we cannot see.'

Which somehow gives me hope.


Blogger Lee said...

I feel like standing up and cheering. Or chanting double helix and black hole. I think metaphor-making is hard-wired into our biological systems somewhere.

Tue Aug 15, 04:47:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There were things at school that had me flummoxed at the time and still have me flummoxed today - things in physics in particular.

And when it came to English grammar, metaphor, simile, analogy - what's the exact difference?

Perhaps it's the way my own brain is wired, but I can cope with analogies. I think my brain is odd. I'm female and useless at multi-tasking, which should be my forte, but it's not, not at all, and I'm still useless at things like physics. I'm not sure where I sit, in the scheme of things.

But I do appreciate this post. It got me thinking. Yet again...

Tue Aug 15, 09:36:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee: yes I agree about the hard-wiring. Hoffmann is such a wonderful writer. I love that last paragraph.

CFR: as I understand it (and I'm no expert) I reckon simile is when you say something is like or as something else, and in metaphor you talk about it as if it is something else. I just remember 'simile' is 'similar to' - that's just a little rule I've developed for myself, so it could very well be wrong.

I keep saying that about not being able to multi-task too. It's why I keep burning the carrots - and why we've disconnected the smoke alarm outside the kitchen. The stupid thing kept going off.

Tue Aug 15, 11:00:00 pm  
Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

I like the juxtaposition in your post, Clare.
And thank you for the mention of Librarian's Place.

Tue Aug 15, 11:03:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My pleasure, Maxine - it's a very useful site.

Wed Aug 16, 01:32:00 pm  

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