Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cute analogies

A few posts ago I was musing about the best ways to introduce scientific ideas in science fiction, to explain them in terms vivid enough to intrigue a reader, instead of slowing down the action. In Sunday's New York Times magazine I found an inspiring example of how it can be done. (I put the particularly memorable sentence in bold.)

Where Protons Will Play

To be sure, the article I'm referring to is a science fact article, not fiction, but I think there's something to be learned from this little perl of explanation. I'm not being sarcastic -- this excerpt seems silly and clever at the same time:

[F]locks of protons will be made to zip around the tunnel in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light. Then they will be forced to crash into each other, with (it is hoped) spectacular results for physics.

Physicists, you see, learn about the subatomic world by smashing things together and then looking at the debris. Imagine a midair collision between two watermelons; it would make quite a mess, but nothing very interesting would result. Suppose, though, you get two protons to collide head-on. If they are moving fast enough, the energy of their collision, converted into mass à la Einstein's E=mc2, will produce a shower of new particles. (It would be as if colliding watermelons splattered into a shower of pineapples, blueberries, mangoes and more exotic fruits.)

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