Insight article

Don’t tell me a story. Show me a story

How do you engage your audience when you explain the physics of entropy, the strange world of quantum mechanics, or what happens to the mass of an object in the vacuum of space? The only way to explain it is to employ the wit and charm of Professor Brian Cox, master of analogy!

If you’ve had the pleasure of watching any of his incredible recent Human Universe documentaries, you’ll certainly be familiar with his enthusiastic prose, and his skill at taking the most complex theory and breaking it down into the most digestible of words. He’s up there with other great television scientific alumni such as Michio Kaku, Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan, to name but a few.

Using the physical world around us, he explains the basic principle of black holes. The idea of space “travelling faster and faster towards a black hole” can be likened to a calm river. At certain points you can easily swim against the current, as the flow isn’t very strong. Yet in his example, it is revealed that this isn’t just any river, it’s the Zambezi River, which leads to the epic Victoria Falls. This marvel of nature was cast in this analogy as the black hole. There will come a point in your leisurely swim where you can no longer overcome the strength of the current which is gravitating towards the precipice of the fall – the event horizon upon which your body will be completely sucked in.

Just as anything in the water near the falls cannot successfully swim against the ever-increasing pace of river, even light cannot travel fast enough to overcome the speed at which everything barrels towards a black hole as, faster and faster, it draws nearer and nearer.

The point is, you can use as much body language as you want to explain something simple, but this has its limits. When you start using waterfalls to explain black holes, and Patagonian glaciers to explain the arrow of time, you can rest assured this is one of the best ways to get your message across – visualising your message, and using concepts people already understand to make the leap towards understanding concepts that are much more foreign to all of us.

No wonder this wonderer of the world has been awarded all sorts of prizes for helping the likes of me begin to understand something like the physics of entropy.

Now, I’ll travel to the future to see how well this article was received before posting it!

Nailia Tasseel