The figurative language of Siddhartha Mukherjee…

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I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a series of similes and metaphors from Siddhartha Mukherjee…

I have a particular admiration for people who write about science in interesting and evocative ways. For me, Siddhartha Mukherjee (pictured above) is one of the most skillful science writers I’ve ever encountered.

A multi-talented physician and oncologist, he is the author of The Emperor of All Maladies, cheekily subtitled A Biography of Cancer. This book received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and was named one of the 100 most influential books written in English since 1923 by Time magazine, and one of the 100 notable books of 2010 by The New York Times Magazine.

In the April 3/17 New Yorker, Mukherjee struck again with a beautifully writtten piece headlined, “A.I. vs M.D.,” in which he explored the phenomenon of diagnosis by computer. As usual, his figurative language was superb. Here are my favourite examples:

  • The room was windowless and dark, aside from the light from the screen, which looked as if it had been filtered through seawater.
  • Strokes are typically asymmetrical. The blood supply to the brain branches left and right and then breaks into rivulets and tributaries on each side.
  • The images on the Bronx woman’s scan cut through the skill from its base to the apex in horizontal pans like a melon sliced from bottom to top.
  • He would ask a patient to demonstrate the symptom — a cough, say— and then lean back in his chair, letting adjectives roll over his tongue. “Raspy and tinny,” he might say, or “base, with an ejaculated thrum,” as if he were describing a vintage bottle of Bordeaux. To me, all the coughs sounded exactly the same, but I’d play along — “Raspy, yes”— like an anxious imposter at a wine tasting.
  • Then with the elan of a roadside magician, he’d proclaim his diagnosis — “Heart failure!”— and order tests to prove that it was correct. It usually was.
  • Thrun [a computer scientist], who grew up in Germany, is lean, with a shaved head and an air of comic exuberance; he looks like some fantastical fusion of Michel Foucault and Mr. Bean.