Now I get it!

glasgowCyclists

Credit for this gem goes to the Glasgow University press office (http://www.gla.ac.uk/news/headline_388852_en.html), with a nice spin added by the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-30944584).

From the BBC: “Complicated? Oh yes. Which is why the researchers say it might help to think of a bicycle race.” Don’t worry your pretty little head about these bothersome physics, stick to fun things like sport. But in all fairness, a peloton does tend to slow down when it collides with a Spatial Light Modulator, or any equpiment attached to an optical table for that matter. . .

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.

Everything associated with the Higgs Boson is a rock star.

Don't actually stick your hand in the LHC

Comparing the Higgs Boson, the particle in Higgs theory considered to give mass to matter, to a rock star is so common that I am not sure who said it first. Whoever it was deserves a lot of credit, because it has run rampant through general-interest science in an attempt to describe the boson without matStematics. The earliest instance I can find is from Howard Gordan, written up by Pete Spotts.

When a particle encounters the field, it’s like a rock star arriving at a party, suggests Howard Gordon, a senior physicist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

As the star arrives, people are milling around – the Higgs field. Few recognize the rock star until the star starts moving through the group.

As he heads toward the hors d’oeuvres table, “he becomes very massive” as people migrate to him for a chat, says Dr. Gordon, more so than they would a garage-band guitarist.

A cursory googling of “Higgs boson rock star” reveals that everything about the Higgs boson is somehow a rock star. The particle itself is a rock star, Peter Higgs is a “rock star physicist,” the LHC team responsible for its discovery: also rock stars. This may sound strange, but is it possible that some things associated with particle physics might not actually be all that similar to wildly successful rock and roll artists?

Mitochondria, the heat engines of life

Mitochondria-The engines of life

This is why I’ve been having problems with the Carnot limit recently.

Credit for a particularly exceptional use of this analogy goes to Johns Hopkins Medicine
Media Relations and Public Affairs:
.

“Like the hybrid car, cells use oxygen and the internal combustion engine at higher speeds and rely on an electric engine without need for oxygen consumption at lower speeds. Cells consume glucose through its main energy-producing machine, the mitochondrion, when oxygen is ample. But like the internal combustion engine, this process generates pollutants or toxic oxygen molecules. “

Original fluorescence image by IP69.226.103.13 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DAPIMitoTrackerRedAlexaFluor488BPAE.jpg and under a creative commons attribution (CCBY) licence.

Internal combustion in the cell