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March 23, 2012 / Dangerous

There are some concepts in Science that are simply mind-blowing – If you can get someone to listen

They are ‘geeky’, take a bit of brain-power to process and are outside the realm of normal contemplation for most people.

So when you are competing with Masterchef for someones attention, you have to make it easy. But how do we make it easy for people to understand that there may be more than four dimensions in the universe? Or that there may be infinite universes? Or even to comprehend infinity for that matter?

We hijack their psychology, of course!

Analogical thinking a ubiquitous feature of the human mind. We use it in problem solving (I know I could get the vase off the top shelf if I had a ladder, but there is no ladder. I need something like a ladder, something with legs that has a flat surface to stand on. Aha, a chair!), learning (electric current is like water flowing through pipes), to make predictions (well, this is the way it went last time), and persuasion (which we will see).

Bill Bryson uses analogies in a very interesting way in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything. The chapter entitled ‘How to build a universe’ is about the birth of the universe. But Bryson doesnt only use analogy to teach us science, he also uses it to teach us how littlewe can understand.

In physics in particular many of the concepts are developed using only mathematics or are just plain beyond our sensory perception (think the 11 dimensions of string theory).

 Try to imagine someone from a universe of flat surfaces, who had never seen a sphere, being brought to Earth. No matter how far he roamed across the plant’s surfaces, he would never find an edge. He might eventually return to the spot where he had started, and would of course be utterly confounded to explain how that had happened.”

So you may still not be able to envision another dimension, but Bryson help you understand that you are just not able to understand everything. It reminded me of a time-travel analogy in J. Richard Gott’s Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe:

Spacetime can be visualized as a piece of paper with time as the vertical direction and space as the horizontal direction; your world line can be shown as a straight line proceeding from the bottom to the top, always going toward the future… Einstein’s theory of gravity shows that spacetime may bend. Suppose your bend the top (future) of this piece of paper around and tape it to the bottom (past), making a cylinder…Then your vertical world line could return to where it started by circling the cylinder, even though locally it would always seem to be traveling forward in time.”

There is no possible way we could visualise the bending of spacetime, but the simplicity and logic makes the concept of traveling back in time by going forward plausible. Even more astounding is Bryson’s convincing description of why all the conditions in our universe are just right for life-that we might be just one of infinite universes.

 If there is a large stock of clothing you’re not surprised to find a suit that fits. If there are many universes, each governed by a differing set of numbers, there will be one where there is a particular set of numbers suitable to life. We are in that one.”

We cant of course even visualise infinity, which doesn’t matter as Bryson points out:

 Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on the ‘i’ can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them”

Our minds are so limited that we cant even imagine five hundred thousand million, so there is not really any point extending it to infinity.

Unfortunately Bryson makes one mistake with his analogies, he uses the Empire State Building as a relative ruler for galaxy distance. I didn’t find this effective because I haven’t actually been there. I think it is probably best to stick to examples that are a bit more universal.

Maybe I am being a bit cynical about societies distraction from the pursuit of knowledge by reality soap-operas cleverly disguised as cooking shows. Truth is that our minds are just not adapted to understand concepts and scales that are not necessary for our survival. Bryson’s analogies not only shed light on these incomprehendable concepts but also give an insight into the magnitude of human insignificance, limitations on the human mind and most importantly, leave us in total awe of science.



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  1. gracerussell1 / Mar 23 2012 8:05 am

    I loved reading this. It was easy and simple. You made comparasons to everyday day life (masterchef) and you brought in passages from relevant books (Bill Bryson). You used these to your advantage and explained how they are associated with your topic. You also used short easy sentences which made for a simple and understandable read. Good work.

  2. axl1228 / Mar 25 2012 3:43 pm

    Interesting article. I really like your critical style.
    Personally I don’t like read analogies, especially for articles taking about complicated scientific knowledge. It’s pretty tiring to do this, reading the analogy, understanding the relation with what the author really talking about, then imagining how the abstract theory goes like.
    But somebody really know how to do that. They can always find a perfect analogy, leading readers to the difficult concept without abundant of explanation.

    • rhiandyer / Apr 6 2012 12:48 am

      In many cases I agree with you Axl I often find myself skipping over analogies and sometimes feel like it is exhausting filtering through superfluous information and reconstructing the important stuff in a way I can understand. Physics, however is probably one area that I couldn’t really get a good understanding without them (I am terrible at maths).

  3. alistairsisson / Mar 27 2012 3:54 am

    I think you are exactly right in saying that analogies are necessary to attract and hold people’s attention, maybe preventing them from putting down their popular science book and turning on masterchef (to use your example). I think wit is essential in constructing these analogies, and that is something that Bryson is known for. Perhaps you could have explored this to some extent?

  4. ashfonty / Mar 28 2012 12:43 am

    Great post Rhian!

    I have to say I disagree with Axl as I love a good analogy! I often find it hard to understand physics and universe related theories. Without a good analogy I really would have no hope of comprehending that idea. With an analogy I have something simple that I do understand to compare it to and draw similarities.

    Constructing analagies on the other hand is something I stuggle with! I think it is a gift to be able to break down these big complicated concepts into things that laypeople can relate to. I guess that’s why I’m doing this course… I have a lot to learn from Bryson.

    I have to say though, it would have to be one hell of a mind blowing analogy to drag me away from MasterChef!

  5. kellyfitzsimons1 / Mar 28 2012 6:26 am

    Like axl1228, I also loved reading your blog. Although I usually love analogies I would have to admit that I was not a fan of this particular analogy on ‘How to build a universe’. I often found myself skimming over the words rather than actually engaging with the text. In saying that I loved some of the links that were made such as:

    “and it is all done in the time it takes to make a sandwich”-this is something that all of us can relate to and provides a great scale of time.

    On the other hand, I often had to re-read some sentences to actually understand what was being said. For example:
    “There is of course a great deal we don’t know, and much of what we think we know we haven’t known, or thought we’ve known, for a long time”.
    Maybe it has just been too long of a day for me, but I found that there were too many similar words in the one sentence. I must admit I did find it amusing when I figured out what they were talking about but having to put in that extra effort to work it out disjointed the story.

    Well done on a well written blog though- it was simple, educating and enjoyable to read. Like the others who have posted I especially like your comparison to masterchef.

  6. annagardiner / Mar 28 2012 10:32 am

    I’m a big fan of analogies, they’re invaluable for helping people understand things, so I think Bill Brysons use of them was essential when dealing with such complex topics. I do agree with Kelly though, I wasn’t really too keen on some of the analogies he used. While the pile of clothes one was very easy for me to visualize the person from the universe of flat surfaces wasn’t and so I don’t think it was effective as it could have been.
    Great writing though! It all flowed really nicely!

    • rhiandyer / Apr 6 2012 1:04 am

      It is interesting that you had a bit of trouble interpreting the “flatlander” analogy, and it made me go back and read that part again. I noticed that it was written a bit briefly for someone who had never heard it before.

      This is a really old analogy written by Edwin Abbott in 1880 so possibly another mistake Bryson has made was assuming that everyone is already familiar with it.

      Thanks for pointing this out, I probably didn’t notice it because I had heard it before but i distinctly remember diagrams that went with it when I was first introduced to it.

      Bryson didn’t use diagrams anywhere in his book but maybe the more sophisticated ideas could have used them.

  7. chantellerichards / Mar 29 2012 7:11 am

    Great blog! I do like how you have used a lot of quotes from the text in order to portray your viewpoint more clearly. Very well done!

    I really enjoy the topic of Science, and it must be said that Astronomy, and in particular, Cosmology, are absolutely fascinating to me! I found this chapter ‘How to Build a Universe’ a great read because it is something that is of interest to me, but I have to admit that I did not understand all of the terminology so I do agree that the analogies were helpful in most cases. For example, when Bryson writes:

    “Had gravity been a trifle stronger, the universe itself might have collapsed like a badly erected tent without precisely the right values to give it the necessary dimensions and density and component parts.”

    It is a very simple statement that almost all of us would understand. It is an absolute pain if you haven’t pitched the tent just right! However, I think it would be slightly more of a pain had gravity been stronger!

    I am in agreement with you in regards to the Empire State Building analogy, I have never been to New York so I also had some degree of difficulty imagining what it would be like.

  8. bonnyp / Mar 29 2012 12:25 pm

    Like axl1228, I generally dislike reading analogies, as I usually find them distracting or overly simplistic. However, I think the use of analogies is really important in making some concepts clearer, especially when they are very complex or abstract.

    I’m not into physics or astronomy, so I think in this case the use of analogies helped to make the science more accessible. The analogy of the pile of clothes was easy to understand, but some of Bryson’s other analogies I found confusing rather than clarifying. Overall though, I don’t think the analogies used in the text would actually be enough to make me stop watching Masterchef and pick up a book on a topic that didn’t interest me in the first place.

    On another note rhiandyer, I particularly liked the way you gave examples of how analogies can help us when problem solving, learning, predicting and persuading. Your post was well written and you integrated quotes nicely into the text. Well done!

  9. elenav90 / Mar 29 2012 1:00 pm

    Analogies work, yes, but one shouldn’t regard them as “simple” just because they “simplify”.
    Wouldn’t analogies have to be fabricated according to the subjects they targeted? To aid in the process of conceptual construction they should keep in mind the reader’s expectations and knowledge, constructed by his unique context and past experiences. I don’t think an analogy will explain the same concept to a five-year-old child who’s growing up in New York, and in an equally effectively manner convey it to his coetaneous in a rural Chinese village. The two individuals have different worlds of reference and even ways of thinking.
    So I’m a bit sceptical about the universal glorification of analogies.

    Also, rhiandyer, I was so happy that you mentioned the “magnitude of human insignificance, limitations on the human mind”. I really think humanity over-values itself!
    This might be perceived as a terribly pessimistic thought, but I think nowadays we have an obsession with factual knowledge, with naming things and putting numbers next to events, explaining everything with rational cause-consequence line of thoughts. We want to always feel “in control” of what is going on around us, and kind of “above” nature: we can not only explain an event, but also foresee it and we aim to be able to fix it if we don’t like it. In a way, the more we progress scientifically, the more humility we lose, the more we fool ourselves about our place and power on Earth.

    So what, if we don’t understand something?

    • rhiandyer / Apr 6 2012 3:02 am

      Certainly analogies should be tailored to the audience at which they are directed. This is why I mentioned that the Empire State Building is not a good example to use. I (here in Australia) have never seen it before so it had little impact on me.

      “the more we progress scientifically, the more humility we lose,”

      I will have to disagree with you on this one, science and technology is a defining feature of humanity. We haven’t survived for this long because of our ability to physically beat down a tiger or because we can outrun a cheetah. In fact we are pretty much useless at everything except controlling our environment.

      Does this make us any ‘better’ than our animal counterparts – of course not. A beaver goes to great lengths to engineer its environment, it is just a different strategy. And trust me, there is no humility lost when we first lean that a strip of RNA (virus) can hijack almost every cell in our bodies and direct them to do its bidding.

      “we fool ourselves about our place and power on Earth”.

      Im not sure how you are measuring our ‘place’ or ‘power’ on Earth, but to me this sounds a bit simplistic. Certainly I think Bryson did aim to project humility but I also think he has made a good point about humans overcoming their limitations.

      Our eyes can only resolve images at a particular point within a very short distance, but our brains can produce a telescope and with those we can see, not just into the distance, but also into the past.

      The power we have as measured by physical limitations of our bodies is very restrictive, yes. Though I think what we can do with our ‘extended phenotype’ (in the words of Richard Dawkins) and our ‘extended mind’ (in the words of Andy Clarke and David Chalmers) is very powerful indeed.

      “So what if we don’t understand something?”

      We get eaten by the tiger.

  10. fullclever / Mar 29 2012 1:36 pm

    Well done, Rhiandyer. You did the most important of all: answer the actual questions? Furthermore, you really used as a base the discussion about Bryson’s analogies, still being honest to the fact that the author helps us to know a lot about general knowledge. Your explanation was effective.
    I agree. Maybe, he should have used something as ruler something most known as soccer or maybe some famous trees, trains, trucks or even the distances between continents.
    Thinking on “the unthinkable” is always a big challenge but Bryson is only one of many brilliant minds trying to translate the complex abstractions scientists have to face as the “soldiers of the knowledge”. And for me he is doing well.

    • rhiandyer / Apr 6 2012 1:39 am

      “Thinking on the unthinkable” – I think you have nicely summed up this chapter! I was going to make a comment on this but you have put it perfectly in four words.

      Now that I think of the Empire State Building analogy again two weeks later I have (I think) a more important criticism. What Bryson was trying to express was simply a ratio of two distances so I don’t even think that it is important that he uses something that big to demonstrate.

      I understand that there are optical illusions involved in (for example) the dimensions of graphs representing data. That is why they always have to have visible error bars or the authors can use the illusions to emphasise whatever aspect they want the viewer to see.

      Maybe this is the type of emphasis that was intended. I just don’t think the effort involved in visualising something so large is worth it for a simple ratio that is just as easily represented on a 30cm ruler.

  11. mmaideni / Mar 29 2012 8:36 pm

    rhiandyer you have really explained as if you were in the mind of Bill Bryson himself when he wrote this piece. The ananolgies help to understand in simple terms some of the things which would otherwise take pages to talk about. This reminds me of my high school teacher who would explained how round the universe is long time a go. He usually said, “if you go out through this window you will find yourself coming back through the same window in no time at all” . And indeed about the “big bang” everybody would think of a bomb that leaves a crater on the surface of the universe but certainly that is how the universe was formed. With human mind given the challenge to explain a scientific term it takes a good thought of the things happening in everyday life to follow. Lack of good choice of what anologies to use can sometimes end up confusing your target audience.
    You have managed to be creative in the use of analogies and metaphors in explaining what Bryson also did in his write up

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