Department of Chemistry Colloquium

The Metaphorical Origins of Scientific and Artistic Creativity

Professor Theodore L. Brown
Department of Chemistry
University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign

3:45 p.m., Friday, September 26
Seminar Hall, Room 1315 Chemistry
  Refreshments in the Atrium of the Chemistry Building at 3:15 p.m.

Metaphor--the comparison of a cell to a busy factory, or the description of a protective molecule as a “chaperone”--occurs constantly in research. There is a strong tradition in Western science that denigrates the importance of figurative language and thought in scientific creativity. My aim in this talk is to argue against this view; and instead to show that metaphorical thought and language is central to the most important aspects of science. Metaphor is at the heart of creativity in the language and visual arts-poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture-as well as music and dance. It is largely unrecognized that our everyday language is also replete with metaphor. Analysis of language, in company with other findings from the cognitive sciences, provides the basis of conceptual metaphor theory, which unifies the nature of the creative process.

I will present several examples, both historical and current, to illustrate the pervasive character of metaphor in science. Metaphor plays a role in interpreting observations, formulating and testing new hypotheses and theories, and in communications between scientists and with the non-specialist public. The recognition that metaphorical thought is essential to science has important implications for what we can say about the nature of scientific creativity, constraints on scientific understanding, and the relationship of science to other forms of creative endeavor.

 Theodore L. Brown is Founding Director Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at the University of Illinois—Urbana Champaign. Dr. Brown received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University in 1956. He has been a faculty member in the UIUC Department of Chemistry since 1956 (he assumed emeritus status in January 1994). During 1980-1986 he served as Vice Chancellor for Research and Dean, Graduate College. In 1987 he became the first director of the Beckman Institute (1987-1993). He served as interim Vice-chancellor for Academic Affairs during 1993. He is an emeritus member of the Beckman Institute Advanced Chemical Systems Group. He participated in the National Academies Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable from 1989-1994, and has served in many other advisory roles. Currently he serves as Chair of the American Chemical Society Committee on Publications, and on the Board of Directors of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. Brown's fields of research interests were inorganic chemistry and organometallic chemistry, with an emphasis on the kinetics and mechanisms of reactions. His current interests are in the cognitive, philosophical and social aspects of the scientific enterprise. Most recently he has authored the book, Making Truth: Metaphor in Science (, which explores the metaphorical foundations of science. Selected honors and awards: Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science (1987); Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1994); American Chemical Society (ACS) Award for Research in Inorganic Chemistry, 1972; ACS Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Inorganic Chemistry (1993); Guggenheim Fellow (1979-80).

Professor Brown's visit is cosponsored by the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy.