“A Bee in a Cathedral” Offers a Trove of Science Analogies

14 02 2012

Tired of writing clichéd science analogies like “…the size of a pinhead,” or “…the distance from the earth to the moon”? The new book A Bee in a Cathedral and 99 Other Scientific Analogies, by Joel Levy, can rescue you from the slough of triteness. How about these?

  • A human being consists of as much energy as is found in the matter of 30 very large H-bombs.
  • Every cell in your body, except red blood cells, contains roughly two meters of stringlike DNA molecules.
  • The energy released by a single hurricane could power the entire U.S. for six months.
  • Even a normal thunderstorm generates power equivalent to the energy consumption of the entire U.S. for four days.
  • A chunk of neutron star the size of a sugar cube weighs more than the human race.
  • All the hominid bones ever discovered could fit in the back of a pickup truck.
  • Every day the heart expends enough energy to drive a truck 20 miles. Over a lifetime, it could power a truck to the moon and back.
  • To see what it’s like to be your own heart, try using a teacup to empty a bathtub in 15 minutes—then do it again and again, without stopping, for the rest of your life.
  • The sun burns through matter at a rate equivalent to a million elephants every second.

And finally, of course, the title analogy: “If an atom were blown up to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be no larger than a bee buzzing about in the center, while the electrons would be ‘orbiting’ near the outermost edge.”

But A Bee in a Cathedral is more than a collection of neat analogies. It also explores the power of analogies, and it uses its analogies to explain some of the major concepts in science. Writes Levy

…analogy is so powerful that it is central not only to the communication of science but also the process of scientific advancement itself. Analogy is a key element of the mysterious phenomena of scientific inspiration and creativity, and the history of science is filled with examples of breakthroughs achieved by analogous reasoning.

He cites, for example, how Robert Boyle was inspired to develop his theories of gases by imagining gas particles as coiled springs; and how August Kekulé came up with the ring structure of benzene when he dreamed of a snake biting its own tail.

Levy’s writing exemplifies the use of analogies to explain dozens of concepts in physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, earth science, the human body and technology. So as a reference, the book is a great cheat sheet for science writers trying to explain phenomena as diverse as entropy, gene function, supernovae and volcanoes.

Levy also champions analogies as a means to make science more accessible and fun, declaring “science is like a houseplant—it needs to be taken out of its dingy corner and put in the sunlight once in a while if it’s to flourish.”

And that, of course, is a delightful simile to explain why compelling science writing is so important!

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