Edward Tufte is the poet of the graph. One of my sons put me on to his fascinating books–The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Beautiful Evidence, etc.– and I’ve become a fan. (If you dislike Powerpoint but don’t know why, by all means read this guy.) In one of his books Tufte complains about “when a precise, narrowly focused technical idea becomes metaphor and sprawls globally.” He used the popular example of authors using quantum physics as a means of explaining human behavior. Tufte calls this punning, an interesting use of the term.

It struck me that in science, Tufte is absolutely right; you cannot let your conclusions overreach your data, and you cannot transfer a hypothesis or conclusion from one discipline to another without retesting it. But in creative writing, that is precisely what we are supposed to do: take a narrowly focused idea or incident, and grossly overinflate it into the conceit of an entire story or  novel, with no factual underpinnings whatsoever. Use A as a metaphor for not only B, but also for C, F, K and S-Z. I’ve always believed the separations between art and science are grossly exaggerated, but this one is definitely a showstopper.

Thomas Berger, in The Anatomy of Humor, defines a pun as “a signifier that stands for two signifieds.” I am not joking. Bad puns, Berger says, play on sound, good ones on meaning. Humor is like mathematics for me: I admire the results, but don’t understand the mechanics. For instance, I know what irony is, but I can’t define it (can you?). So I am faced with a difficult choice: just consume good literature and good science, or else ignore the rules and create some of both. After all, if you drill far enough down into language, it is a science. And the scientific process is based on the hypothesis, which can be created out of thin air.

In all this buzzing confusion, I can cling to one of the great and definitive puns of all time, this from Groucho Marx. “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”