We mustn’t liken a black hole to a baked good

We also mustn’t use the royal we

A prevalent mindset in science journalism is that in order to make a subject accessible, it first must be dumbed-down. I suggest we all make efforts to recognise the difference between a simplification and a replacement with simple ideas. A simplification is a description that isn’t comprehensive, but is still true. Replacing a complex idea with simple one, on the other hand, often boils down to telling a loosely related story for the sake of entertainment.

Abstraction is essential to scientific inquiry, and often analogy for the sake of one’s own understanding or that of an audience can be a tricky thing to grapple with. All too often when scientists and science writers try to convey especially tricky ideas they end up deviating from their premises and consequently end up communicating something almost wholly different than what they intend to describe.

Over the last few weeks I pointed out a few examples of “exceptional” analogy in science writing. Attentive readers may have noticed they were all sort of… not good. They all fall a bit flat for purposes of communicating the science behind them.. A tough task to be sure, popularisers of science have to balance accuracy against confusing their audience with esoteric nonsense. Wasn’t it Isaac Asimov that said any sufficiently specialised language is indistinguishable from rampant babble? Hopefully you enjoyed the cartoons.

Every single time

This one gets used quite often, and typically will form the pinnacle of a long line of increasingly wayward analogies. Space is mind-bogglingly big (much larger than the distance to the chemist’s, thanks D.A.) and also quite weird.

Don't actually stick your hand in the LHC

I have heard this one from some very clever people. Presumably particle physicists all switched to the rock-star analogy after they grew tired of watching listeners eyes glaze over when they delve into maths.

Mitochondria-The engines of life

Internal combustion in the cell

This one might be the closest to the mark. The engine/mitochondria analogy gets the point across that metabolism involves trade-offs, but does very little to convey a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms.

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7 thoughts on “We mustn’t liken a black hole to a baked good”

  1. Rate this:

    The Amazon jungle, lungs of the world

    I would say ‘good’ because rough equivalence is achieved, although the order is reversed: carbon dioxide in, oxygen out, in this case. With this comes also a reader’s association with the primacy of breathing or anxiety over asphyxiation. Emotion is fuel for effective causes.

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    1. That is an interesting metaphor, falling a bit on the poetic side and not ineffective. When I read it, I visualize the similarity in the branching structure of the alveoli in the lungs/leaves in the forest. I think the trouble begins when a writer seeks to equate a wholly counterintuitive premise to everyday experience. Any time the physics are beyond our human “macro-world” in scales of time and/or space our brains find it difficult to relate without maths. We (humans) have just not had the selective pressures to readily think in those magnitudes.

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  2. If using an analogy helps you to understand things and as long as you put it into context (i.e. pointing out where the shortcomings of the analogy are), I don’t see how you can do much harm? Granted, some are awful, I’ve never really understood the “the Higgs Boson is like a celebrity” one and explaining that ultrasound is like playing snooker only confuses people. And obviously I can’t think of an example of a good one right now (oh, maybe the wormhole with a sheet of paper?), but sometimes it does help un-abstracting things.

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    1. I think your first sentence implies two important guidelines for using analogy in conveying science: 1) Must help the recipient of the message in their understanding of the premise and 2) Must be placed in the context of its caveats. I am all for looking out for really exceptional (in a good way too!) analogies and their efficacy in communicating science. Surely you can think of a few of your favorites, or keep a record when you come across any that are particularly striking and let me know. Let us work toward finding the key components of making a good analogy to bridge the gap to unattainable abstraction in science and maths, for those of us (most of us) still trying to retrofit our simian brains for a good shot at a good think.

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  3. I like ‘solar wind’, too, because the image of a ceaseless, streaming invisible force is not inaccurate. It also eases understanding of other once-inexplicable mysteries, like the ruffling that creates the Northern Lights.

    Should we consign poetry to a certain “side” of things, a side the dutiful scientist must avoid straying onto?

    My view: Poetry is truth. It takes no sides. It lives in an open state of mind, receptivity to inspiration. The writer in you knows all this, of course. Scientist-poet: not something to stick in your CV, perhaps, but definitely something to help change the world.

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    1. Hey Tim, did you like the haikus that went along with the cartoons? While technically poetry, I think the format (in english) is best suited for sarcasm and/or pompousness, with or without the irony. From your context I think you mean a more specific kind of poetry: that which is not poetry by following a style or pattern, but a beautiful parsimony of telling a piece of truth in the simplest way possible. That is the same allure that draws us to good math! Two sides of the same coin, oder. . . two impressions of the same facet?

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  4. Quite.

    Haikus also fun if onomatopoeic, oder (you Swiss).

    So sarcastic, pompous, ironic, noisy and a nod to James Joyce:

    He thrones, Bloom-like,
    Oh the weight of it leaving
    Floomps! And the rising

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