Lost in Translation: Can we explain ANY scientific concept to the layperson?

An Important Intermission

So far in the blog series, I have drawn up 3 qualities that I believe made Feynman renowned as the ‘Great Explainer’. By implication I might have led you implicitly to believe that if you took these qualities to heart and cultivated the habits of mind that characterized Feynman’s mind, that we can explain ANY scientific concept to the layperson.

Here is an amazing short clip of Feynman attempting to explain the concept of magnetism in lay terms to an interviewer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMFPe-DwULM

What this clip shows ties up all 3 qualities of the Great Explainer mentioned thus far in this blog series and extends that with an important subtlety that has important implications for all of us budding science communicators – that we may not be able to explain any concept in lay terms, such that it gives justice to the concept’s complexity and subtleties.

Feynman tries his best to explain magnetism but falls short of an explanation that he is satisfied with.

The non-scientist interviewer genuinely wants to attain an understanding of magnetism that Feynman has of it and perhaps therein lies the problem. The lay interviewer seems to want to understand a concept of physics in a few minutes what took Feynman decades to earn and was still learning to understand as a result of immersing himself in the world of physics experiments and playing with the idea over the years.

An analogous situation that I can think of is if any of you have ever tried to translate, with high fidelity, a piece of text in your native language to another language. Sometimes you can’t do your translation justice right? Although you might be able to translate the crux of the message in the text, there are idioms, emotional, cultural, and linguistic nuances, which cannot be translated entirely and can only be known by someone who has lived in that country for a considerable amount of time.

Similarly, to understand magnetism to the extent that Feynman understands it, you must live and breathe physics as he had over many many years, flirting with the concept, courting it, and finally agreeing on some kind of living arrangement with it, like marriage, but perhaps like marriage, still always learning something new about the other.

What I learned from this is that, if you’re really passionate about understanding an idea like magnetism, or reading Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) or Les Misérables, in its full glory, then there’s no way around it but to immerse yourself in that world, learn physics, and take French classes and live in France – all of which can be fun!

P.S. There is definitely nothing wrong with the following translation attempts: