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So You’re Not a Physicist …

I’m a tad conflicted here. On the one hand, there’s technical accuracy. On the other, there’s poetic license, and on the third hand there’s “Meh”.

I do think there is a danger in this. People will end up perceive the wrong idea of a physics concept if their exposure is a bad analogy. Take “Quantum Leap” (please!). If your only exposure to the term came in metaphors and analogies in popular works, you’d probably think that “quantum” means “big”, rather than its correct meaning of “discrete”. (That is, not being quantum means being continuous. Not small.) That’s just one more misconception that science teachers and communicators have to tear down before you can get to the juicy science underneath.

Looking at this from another perspective, I think there are a few folks who balk at English in general being applied with imprecision — the ones who point out that rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic, for example. That group counts the New York Times (different columnist, though) among its members.

Accuracy and precision in communication is important. So why give physics metaphors a pass?