A long calculation is like …

28Feb07

Scientists (especially physicists) who speak to a general audience about their field usually have a back of handy analogies to help explain otherwise difficult concepts*. On a more basic level, the ability to make connections between a poorly understood idea and a well-understood idea is a key skill for those working in theoretical sciences. Anyway, I mention this because I had a good laugh yesterday talking to some of my fellow Part III students (somewhat paraphrased):

Student 1: I really like doing long calculations. For me, a long calculation is like playing a computer game.

Student 2: Geez, what kind of computer games have you been playing? Mine Sweeper?

Student 3: The kind of computer game where you have to start over again several times.

(Student 1 later suggested that what he meant was that a long calculation is like jogging—it’s somewhat tedious and exhausting, but you’re better off for doing it and it makes you feel good.)

* – My favourite popular physics analogy is reproduced here: The Higgs Mechanism.

** – There was a comment that I hadn’t posted in a while… I apologize! However, I also suggest using an RSS reader (like Google Reader)  to organize blog feeds. This way one doesn’t have to actually visit several blog websites manually looking for new posts. The RSS feed will ‘deliver’ new posts to your doorstop. (Ah, another analogy.)

6 Responses to “A long calculation is like …”

1. 1 hackticus

2. 2 hwasungmars

3. 3 sirix

In this Higgs mechanism analogy, what do the consecutive picture mean? (I’m mathematics student, know nothing about physics)

4. Good question, Luke — the explanation for the cartoon isn’t necessarily clear for non-physicists. To fill in the details: the crowd of people represent the Higgs field. That is to say, they are the field that gives particles their mass. In the cartoon, mass (really intertia) is represented how easily a ‘particle’ (famous scientist) can walk across the room. A massive particle corresponds to a really famous scientist. The Higgs field (crowd) will interact often with the scientist, inhibiting the scientist’s ability to move across the room unhindered. Thus the scientist has `gained mass.’ This is in contrast to a `massless’ particle, which is represented by an unknown scientist who can walk across a room without anyone bothering to talk to him/her.

The second part of the cartoon illustrates the idea that the Higgs field interacts with itself and hence gives itself mass.

This is an analogy for the Higgs mechanism by which massless particles (scientists) become massive when something called `spontaneous symmetry breaking’ occurs. At the level of the cartoon any details are hidden away. The main idea of the cartoon is to express to the general audience the idea that mass (inertia) can be caused by interactions with a field (the Higgs field).

Make sure you’re not confusing yourself by looking for something deeper in an analogy that doesn’t fully capture the underlying idea. (I.e. the analogy captures some of the essence of the idea, but certainly doesn’t map to the detailed mechanism in a one-to-one way.)