Science as metaphor

In this article from Science from July 1998, award-winning journalist John Banville on the similarities and differences between art and science:

Of course, art and science are fundamentally different in their methods, and in their ends. The doing of science involves a level of rigor unattainable to art. A scientific hypothesis can be proven—or, perhaps more importantly, disproven—but a poem, a picture, or a piece of music, cannot. Yet in their origins art and science are remarkably similar. It was a scientist, Niels Bohr, who declared that a great truth is a statement whose opposite is also a great truth. Oscar Wilde would have agreed.

It often seems like there’s a chasm between the two, but there is also plenty of common ground.


  • Can someone explain to me what Bohr meant by ‘great truth’? The whole quote is: “The opposite of a trivial truth is false; the opposite of a great truth is also true.”.

    What are ‘great truth’ and ‘trivial truth’?

  • Dino Cevolatti May 4, 2011 at 1:51 am

    Actually it was Nietzsche, and he had a lot to say on this topic!

  • A few years ago i took part in a science / theatre workshop. We produced a show that drew parallels between the experimental nature of science and theatre.. Here’s a piece i wrote for it.

    What is a metaphor?
    A & B performing two independent, interleaved monologues
    A – The electron is a metaphor.
    B – Love is a metaphor.
    A – There really is no such thing as an electron. Not as you or I
    understand it.
    B – There is no one thing called love, as celebrated by playwrights and
    A – Even physicists use the term as an approximation, an
    B – The truth is more complicated than that, a lot more complicated.
    A – Electrons appear in our measurements and our equations but we
    have no direct experience of them. We can’t, they’re too weird.
    Electrons aren’t really particles, they aren’t really waves. Their
    dynamics are dizzying.
    B – No two people are the same. Love is an complex interaction
    between two complex individuals. They barely know their own
    minds and they can only guess what it is like for the other. And if
    they don’t know, what chance do we have?
    A – We have no experiences that that tells us about that type of
    existence. Everyday life follows different rules.
    B – The best we can do is to get close. Translate everything we are told
    into our own private language, into our own experiences,
    comparing it to a memory we have or a previous story we have
    A – We have our models of the world and they work breath-takingly
    B – Some things resonate so clearly that we know that it must be
    similar for others.
    A – Yet they are metaphors for a phenomenon too complex to hold in
    our heads.
    B – I bet Shakespeare based Juliet on some schoolyard crush.
    A – I’m sure Stephen Hawking often thinks of tiny billiard balls
    pinging around in space.

  • I’m not sure I agree that “The doing of science involves a level of rigor unattainable to art.” Many arts–technical drawing, wood working, glass work, weaving, sculpture–are crafts that demand incredible rigor, use some of the same skills employed by engineers (think of large scale sculptural work), for which people train a lifetime. It strikes me as a bit hasty to believe there are some distinctions that can truly be applied universally to such indistinct categories as “art” and “science.”