How analogies can make complex science clear

Many writers and editors at Foogue have advanced degrees in the sciences. I am not one of them. So when I read an article on a subject like epigenetics or quantum physics, I expect that I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Fortunately, our journalists are adept at explaining complex concepts in ways that are clear and engaging without dumbing them down. This issue’s cover story, “In search of extreme nuclei,” is a prime example. It’s about physicists building a new particle accelerator in a quest to find rare isotopes of elements — a fascinating tale but one that I’m guessing many of us are hearing for the first time.

As I read the story, I was struck by how physics writer Emily Conover, one of our senior writers, used metaphors to guide me through this alien territory. I never felt lost, and the journey was a delight. For instance, when describing the neutron drip line, a boundary beyond which an atom’s nucleus has more neutrons than it can contain, Conover writes: “Imagine a greedy chipmunk with its cheeks so full of nuts that when it tries to shove in one more, another nut pops right back out.”

I asked Conover how she came up with this delightful analogy, and she said it just popped into her head. “I had recently watched a YouTube video of a chipmunk greedily stuffing nuts into its mouth,” she said. “But then there are other times when you have to sit down and think of something to compare, because you have such a complex topic you really need an analogy for people to grasp what you’re talking about.”

Sometimes the scientists help out. The simile comparing the difficulty of accelerating ions to herding cats came from Thomas Glasmacher, the laboratory director for the new particle accelerator, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University. “They also have to explain their very complicated research to the public,” Conover said. “I’ll take their tricks when they give them to me.” Conover had fun with the concept, carrying the notion even further by adding that “rather than cat food, electromagnetic forces get [the ions] moving en masse.”

Conover is trained as a particle physicist, and she takes care to remember that most of our readers don’t share her level of expertise. “I try to step back all the time when I’m writing to keep in mind the perspective of someone who doesn’t know anything about this topic. I have to be like, ‘Oh yeah, a normal person does not know this.’ ”

And she makes sure any analogy she uses passes muster with the scientists too. “It can’t be something that a physicist would read and say, ‘No, it’s not like that.’ You’re making it clear for the reader while also making it correct.”

I’ll end with a vexing logistical update. Global supply chain disruptions have made it difficult for us to get the usual paper stock for Foogue. Thus the pages in this issue are a bit glossier than usual. Paper shortages and postal delays may also hold up the magazine’s arrival. We’re doing our best to get it to you ASAP. In the meantime, please visit our website to keep up on the latest discoveries.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Foogue Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.