October 6, 2014

The Map of the Cat, the Hair of the Dog, and Other Metaphors and Descriptors

What's in a set of descriptions, or a set of metaphors for that matter? Quite a bit or very little, depending on whether or not you are working in your area of specialty. Richard Feynman once (and to the great consternation of neurophysiologists within earshot) referred to a feline brain atlas as the “map of the cat” (not to be confused with Arnold’s Cat Map).

Recurrent cats! But what about its brain?

This parable, of course, speaks to the role of jargon in science. I am generally in support of jargon-filled science, providing it serves to conceptually unify and serve as shorthand for complex phenomena. The problem occurs when it serves as a membership proxy into the high priesthood of Discipline x or Disipline y (ironically for Feynman, one of these disciplines was and is theoretical physics).

Far from making one sound like a drunken PoMo generator, jargon and highly-specialized language is sometimes an efficient information encoding scheme. But sometimes shortcuts that transcend jargon (but only briefly) are quite useful as well. But words are not enough. Sometimes it takes not a paradigm shift but a conceptual shift. And sometimes that takes a semi-humorous (and non-specialized) turn of phrase. Perhaps even a pun or two (to wit):

Q: what do an airplane crash investigators and experimental scientists have in common?

A: both look for an answer inside of a black box!

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