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.

Touring CERN’s Compact Muon Solenoid

theScinder visited CERN!

On the cutting edge of wading through petabytes of data, the reader will probably recognise the organization from big press releases concerning the discovery of the boson-with-properties-consistent-with-the-Higgs (resulting in the Nobel in Physics for Peter Higgs and François Englert last year) and the report from OPERA that they had discoverd faster-than-light neutrinos (resulting in the resignation of Antonio Ereditato and Daria Autiero, despite a rather cautious initial press release.)

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The triage room. This is where hardware throws away tremendous swaths of data, so you don’t have to. Uninteresting events are deleted permanently before being parceled out around the world on the LHC worldwide computing grid.

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Please put on your dosimeters now.

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The CMS itself. The view in this photo is somewhat hampered by the compactness of the solenoid. A view of the detector complex before it was completely installed offers a more complete side view.

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Thanks to Wolfram Zeuner of the CMS for showing us around the CMS, and Markus Schulz from the computing centre for arranging the visit and providing a tour of the computing centre.