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March 25, 2011 / yveee

Metaphorically speaking, “It all started with a Big Bang!”

By Yvette Leong

Dr. Sheldon Cooper from the cast of The Big Bang Theory

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.

References:

Bryson, B., (2003). A Short History of Nearly Everything. London: Doubleday.

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7 Comments

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  1. Rosanna Margetts / Mar 26 2011 6:53 am

    Hi Yvette,

    I found your blog very entertaining at the start, but I got lost a bit in the middle, it didnt seem to flow so much when it cam to the part about talking about Bill bryson. Maybe if instead of saying ‘Bill Bryson is a master user…’ You could connect it to the last sentence by saying ‘Metaphors and Analogies are a favourite literary tool with Bill Bryson.”

    Btw I’m writing this at work, Tim Loy says hi 🙂

    • yveee / Mar 26 2011 2:42 pm

      Hi Rosanna,
      Thank you for your valuable and constructive feedback. That is an excellent suggestion! I have to remember not to get too carried away with the entertainment aspect that I forget to properly link all the information I’m delivering. Thanks 🙂
      Cheers,
      Yvette
      P.S. Haha, he told me today that he knows you 🙂

  2. piyasd01 / Mar 27 2011 4:18 am

    Hi Yvette,

    I found your article very engaging. I really like the way you used the lyrics from the opening credits of “The Big Bang Theory” as your title and as an example to prove your point. I am a big fan of the show, so your title and the visual image of Sheldon naturally grabbed my attention. You made a very good point about finding appropriate metaphors and analogies based on the cultural background of your audience.

    I also like the example you used (metaphor about sandwich making) from Bill Bryson’s work. However, I would like to see more examples of analogies and metaphors used from both the assigned reading as well as general everyday examples to prove your point. Furthermore, I think it would be better to reference your work, for example the paragraphs that define a metaphor and analogy.

    Overall, a very intriguing piece of work.

    Regards,
    Devinka

    • yveee / Apr 2 2011 2:27 pm

      Thank you for your feedback Devinka!
      On the point about referencing, I would like to acknowledge Muza’s lecture for providing the bases for the paraphrased definitions I used for the metaphor and analogy. Thank you.

  3. Carmen Pol / Mar 31 2011 1:33 pm

    Hi Yvette!
    Your blog caught my eye straight away (For the same reasons as Devinka). I really love the big bang theory too :] . I appreciate this point you made:
    “analogies and metaphors may only be as powerful as the cultures to which they are connected with and presented to”.
    I’d never given it much thought before. It really made me consider how our writing needs to be acceptable given the constraints of our target audience.
    Excellent work!
    Carmen

    • yveee / Apr 2 2011 2:32 pm

      Thank you Carmen. It’s really nice to know that my writing helped give you a new perspective. On that note, however, I reckon sometimes people may go the opposite way and think too much about differences in culture that we forget how similarly human everyone really is. Interesting thing to consider don’t you think?

      • Carmen Pol / Apr 7 2011 3:35 am

        That is also true, we do all have that in common!
        Also, really liked the use of a picture, caught my eye.

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