Metaphorically speaking, “It all started with a Big Bang!”
By Yvette Leong
Image from: http://emmaofthevalley.tumblr.com/
The title of this post (the part in inverted commas) was taken from the opening theme song of the American TV series The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon Cooper, one of the characters in the series, is a socially awkward, highly accomplished scientist, with an IQ of 187. In one episode, he assures his non-scientist neighbour Penny with the following claim: “Penny, I’m a physicist. I have a working knowledge of the entire universe and everything it contains.”
Unlike Sheldon, most of us ordinary human beings with IQs averaging at ~100 would find it very difficult to understand “the universe” and how it came to be. As with many scientific concepts, the expansion of space and time into a blank nothingness till our current material universe was created, are just too abstract for most people to imagine or comprehend. Thankfully, two happy tools exist for scientists and science communicators to help make inexpressible, long-winded, and convoluted theories accessible and engaging to laypeople. These tools are the Analogy and the Metaphor.
Analogies relate information about one thing to information about another. They attempt to explain, in a logical manner, the components and processes of one of the two things being related. Metaphors, on the other hand, are figures of speech that make comparisons between different things that have similar qualities.
Bill Bryson is a master user of analogies and metaphors as he takes readers through A Short History of Nearly Everything. In the opening chapter, “How to build a universe”, Bryson describes and explains the beginnings of our universe by scaling up the unimaginably small (protons, particles), and scaling down the unimaginably huge (space and time, lightyears, the Big Bang), to a scale recognisable by you and I.
“In three minutes, 98 per cent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich.” (p. 28)
With the above analogy, Bryson relates the time taken for most of the raw materials of our universe to be created to the time taken to complete an everyday task.
Bryson also uses metaphors to address misconceptions people might get about certain ideas. Take the starting point of undefined nothingness before the creation of space and time (known by physicists as the “singularity”). Bryson explains:
“It is natural but wrong to visualize the singularity as a kind of pregnant dot hanging in a dark, boundless void. But there is no space, no darkness. The singularity has no around around it. There is no space for it to occupy, no place for it to be.” (p. 28)
These few examples from Bryson’s book demonstrate the usefulness of analogies and metaphors in helping to clarify and concisely explain complicated theories. Analogies and metaphors paint poignant pictures that help us identify with something abstract, to “see” the invisible.
However, analogies and metaphors might create misconceptions too. For example, the “Big Bang” metaphor used to describe the creation of the universe is, as Bryson points out, a misnomer. The universe did not explode in the way we would imagine an explosion (which implies the pre-existence of matter to explode), but rather it experienced a ginormous, rapid expansion of nothing that become something.
Another important limitation is that, as with the sandwich-making analogy, analogies and metaphors may only be as powerful as the cultures to which they are connected with and presented to. Bryson was almost certainly presuming an urbanised Western readership. As science communicators, we need to consider the cultural backgrounds of our audience in order for our communication tools to be effective.
Bryson, B., (2003). A Short History of Nearly Everything. London: Doubleday.