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Analogies [cartoon]

– Vinay

The hardest part of explaining scientific discoveries to the lay public is in figuring out the proper analogical framework. Any explanation is an approximation, and tries to put the newly developed concepts in terms that are already familiar to people. More often than not, this is bound to fail. So we have evolved some explanations — like the expanding Universe illustrated by a balloon, or space-time being like a rubber sheet — that have become so cliched that we sometimes forget that it won’t make sense to all audiences all the time. Here’s a perfect illustration of the problem, via the webcomic XKCD:

(and the mouseover text says: “space-time is like some simple and familiar system which is both intuitively understandable and precisely analogous, and if I were Richard Feynman I’d be able to come up with it.“)