ISO: the perfect metaphor

Science reporters like Olga Kreimer of the Crown Project spend a lifetime searching for the perfect metaphor. Here, Olga talks about her quest, part of the UM J School’s grad program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism.

One of the more fun parts of learning about science writing is figuring out how to explain it to people who don’t already know terms like “storage coefficient” or “deep alluvial aquifer” — even, and maybe especially, if that person is you. (Er, me.) The last real science class I took was ages ago, so I turned to experts to explain what the heck was going on under the water table in the Flathead Valley.


The next step after my crash course was figuring out how to explain it to readers, and metaphors were the obvious shortcut. Experienced science writers are pros at this — they blend up the complex with the familiar and share something readers can understand without stumbling over. Editors swoon. Light bulbs worldwide ignite overhead. A little bit of universal entropy gets untangled and tamed.


I’ve been trying to do the same over the last few months — with mixed results. Here are just a few of the metaphors I’ve used to explain groundwater hydrology in an underground aquifer:


  • A cake stuck with toothpicks
  • Coffee grounds in a filter
  • An ant farm
  • A chicken stuck with a meat thermometer
  • One of those giant cocktail bowls with a lot of straws in it
  • The dregs of a milkshake
  • The middle of a milkshake
  • Ketchup stuck in a bottle
  • A dish sponge
  • A water balloon
  • A rain gutter
  • Cookie dough


You’ll have to read the published story to see if any of these make it in. (I have my fingers crossed for the chicken.) In the meantime I’ll be over here explaining particle physics with only a blender, a flashlight and a handful of silly putty.