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The best way to explain anything

Posted by Paul Hellman  July 27, 2012 11:00 AM

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Let's say you're explaining something complicated, like the brain, to someone like me, whom you suspect may not have one.

Try an analogy. The brain, you might say, is like a sponge (absorbs everything). Or a sieve (retains nothing). Or mush (seems to lack coherence).

An analogy explains the unknown (e.g. the brain) in terms of the known (e.g. mush).

Otherwise, we gum up our explanations with jargon, abstraction, and excessive detail.

Ever try to explain your job to someone outside your field? It's almost impossible. Except for a few jobs on TV—doctor, lawyer, psychopath—no one really gets what anyone else does all day.

Here's the problem: the more you know about something, the worse you are at explaining it. That's called "curse of knowledge" (from "Made to Stick," by Chip and Dan Heath).

I thought about that recently, while struggling to understand the latest (possible) discovery in physics, Higgs boson.

Wikipedia's explanation doesn't help: Higgs boson, they say, is one of the 61 elementary particles in the Standard Model, which also includes 36 quarks, 12 leptons, and 8 gluons.

You have to admit, that's amazing. After one sentence, there are now 61 things we don’t understand.

Let’s try an analogy. “Compare Higgs bosons," physicist Paul Padley tells USA TODAY, "to groupies mobbing a celebrity.

“The other particles are the celebrities, desperately trying to move but slowed by autograph-seekers."

Well, that's ok as analogies go, but if Higgs boson explains why celebrities—and everyone else—have mass, I'd suggest a simpler analogy:

Dieting.

"Ever wonder," I'd ask, if someone put a gun to my head and forced me to talk about particle physics, "why it’s so hard to lose weight?

"The problem, obviously, is Higgs boson!

"Suppose you're about to eat some black raspberry chip frozen yogurt. Higgs boson explains why the yogurt has mass, why the chocolate chips have mass, and why—whether you eat a little or a lot—you're going to have mass.

"In other words, if you’re trying to shrink down to the size of a subatomic particle, Higgs boson says, forget it."

Tip #1: Beware the curse of knowledge.

Tip #2: Black raspberry chip may or may not have the 61 particles in the Standard Model—who knows what's really in it?—but it's tasty.

© Copyright 2012 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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