Chemistry for laypeople


We analyse how to take a lay audience along in a workshop through our research. “I understand that we don’t use too many technical terms,” Max begins. “I don’t feel comfortable using metaphors to substitute them, though. We’re not at a tabloid newspaper.” Sam adds: “The ‚God Particle ‘instead of the Higgs boson – that’s just attention-seeking, with no added value.”

If a linguistic image helps to make a subject more accessible to your audience, then it is a good metaphor.

Terms like God Particle help grab attention. But that’s about the only positive that can be said about it. With bad metaphors, you get a lot of bycatch on board: exaggeration, confusion, or fraying of the discussion into philosophical debates. If the Higgs Boson is the god particle, does the proton come from the Holy Spirit?

“What about Blueprint of Life for deoxyribonucleic acid?” Shixin interjects. That fits better. This allows us to understand how the DNA blueprint codes the proteins. Blueprint of Life does not capture newer findings, such as epigenetic information levels, but this is beyond the reach of a simple metaphor.

Don’t be afraid to use figurative language. Some linguistic images are so powerful that they become common language usage. Robert Hooke introduced the term cell as a metaphor at the end of the 17th century when he recognised structures under the microscope that reminded him of small rooms, ‚cella ‘in Latin. The optical wave has followed a similar path. Or consider the ecological footprint, invasive species, food chains, or the greenhouse effect—all terms that have, over time, moved from metaphor to common usage.

If you want to develop your figurative language and assess whether it is a good or bad metaphor, you should ask yourself: Did you choose it just because it sounds nice? Then it’s a bad metaphor. On the other hand, if a linguistic image helps to make a subject more accessible to your audience, then it is a good metaphor.


This article was first published in Nachrichten aus der Chemie (issue 11-2022). See here the German original.

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