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.