Making the Unfamiliar Familiar: Metaphors as a Strategy for Clarifying Technical and Scientific Concepts

For the engineers that I have taught, one of the most challenging communication tasks is explaining scientific concepts to less technical audiences, such as the general public. Yet explaining their work to the public – and other audiences with varying levels of technical know how – is a key part of many engineering positions, and doing this well is pivotal to success in their careers. A number of rhetorical tools can help with this task, but one is specifically designed for communicating unfamiliar concepts, via reference to familiar ones: metaphor.

You might think that metaphorical (or, more generally, figurative) language is more suitable for the Arts, but it has an important place in scientific communication and, significantly, science itself. Scientists communicating to scientists often have to resort to metaphorical language, particularly when confronted by new phenomena or ideas. For example, Maxwell used the concept of water pressure in tubes to describe to others Faraday’s concept of electric lines of force; waves in water were used to help explain the wave-like nature of light; and computer interface design relied on the physical analogy of a desktop as its foundational concept. Metaphor is key to understanding, explaining, and conceptualizing new ideas in all domains.  

At some point in your academic career, you’ve likely been taught that metaphor is simply a comparison between one thing and another*: but understanding its deeper structures can help tease out how they function, and how to deploy them effectively to get your meaning across.  “Metaphor” is Greek for “transfer,” and we should understand it as transferring explicit or implicit attributes from one object to another. Take, for example, one of Shakespeare’s famous metaphors: “All the world’s a stage.” This short five word line carries so much implied meaning in its transfer of the attributes of a stage world to real life, as it works on the comparison between the “stage” and the real “world.” Here, “stage” is the source of the metaphor, the familiar term that lends meaning; “world” – in this case a reference to life in general – is the target, the object that takes on meaning from the source. We can already begin to assign some meaning to this metaphor based solely on this line, but Shakespeare follows up with more explicit similarities:  “And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances.” (He goes on for much longer …) [Continue reading]

Revised IEEE ProComm Constitution and Bylaws

Season's greetings everyone! Just a quick note that our constitution and bylaws have been revised, approved by the Board of Governors, and approved by the Vice President of Technical Activities for the IEEE on December 20th, 2018. These documents, … [Continue reading]

A Survey on Patent Courses in Bachelor Degrees of Science and Engineering

IEEE Education Society Sr Past President Manuel Castro is conducting a survey about introducing new Patent Courses in Bachelor Degrees of Science and Engineering. Please contribute to the survey by visiting: … [Continue reading]

In Memoriam Rudolph J. Joenk, Jr., PhD (1932-2018)

Rudy Joenk, longtime member of the IEEE Professional Communication Society, passed away in Boulder, CO on 5 November 2018. Born in St. Louis, MO, he graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1953. … [Continue reading]

Grant Proposal Writing Webinar

Do you have an idea? Do you want to learn how to convert the idea into a beautiful proposal? Do you want to know the strategies to strengthen your proposal in a way to generate more funds for your project/activity? IEEE Professional and … [Continue reading]

Assistant Professor in Risk/Crisis Communication: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide is searching for a Risk/Crisis Communication specialist to become part of a collaborative initiative in Emergency Services and Communication. This tenure-track assistant professor position begins in … [Continue reading]

Understanding Emotional Competencies in Engineering

Figure 1: Goleman's Emotional Competencies  Most would agree that emotional intelligence (EI) is essential to effectively managing and participating in teams, which is a key aspect of engineering work. Yet it’s not often taught in an engineering … [Continue reading]

Engineering Design as Translation

Consider engineering as an act of translation, generating and applying different representations (words, models, equations, diagrams, etc.) to the practices of design and problem solving. The engineer perpetually moves between the world of theory and … [Continue reading]

Lecturer / Senior Lecturer Position in Engineering Commmunications Program – Cornell University

The Engineering Communications Program (ECP), in the College of Engineering at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY invites applications for a Lecturer or Senior Lecturer position. This non-tenure track position, teaching engineering communications, is a … [Continue reading]

Assistant or Associate Professor-Professional & Technical Writing: Colorado University

The University of Colorado Colorado Springs invites applications for a tenure-track Assistant or Associate Professor and Director of the Professional and Technical Writing Program (PTW) to start August 2019. The mission of the PTW program is to … [Continue reading]