5 Fixes for Pop-Culture Pile-Ups

By Mark Nichol

Alluding to science and technology, real and imagined, in lay publications or in references to popular culture is fraught with peril. You don’t know humiliation until you’ve been flamed by a science or tech geek or a sci-fi fanboy who castigates you for a misunderstanding about the way the universe works, or for perpetuating a misquote from a beloved movie, TV program, or other artifact of entertainment. Always verify the validity of such analogies or allusions as these:

1. “You don’t have to be the Man of Steel to open a Kryptonite bike lock.”
This failed attempt at pop-culture metaphor in discussion of a brand of bike lock called Kryptonite is illogical, because Superman (known also by the epithet the Man of Steel) was “allergic” to kryptonite, so a bike lock made of the (fictional) element would disable him; this fact renders the sentence nonsensical. To rescue it, a wholesale revision and expansion of the analogy is required: “The Kryptonite bike lock wouldn’t faze Superman, and it doesn’t deter thieves, either.”

2. “I’m reminded of Captain Kirk’s familiar request to the ship’s engineer: ‘Beam me up, Scotty.’”
There’s a bit of a problem with this reference to one of the most recognizable catchphrases in the pop-culture lexicon: It was never actually uttered by the television character associated with it. Always double-check even what appears to be the most airtight reference, and then, if it turns out to be inaccurate, slip that fact in: “I’m reminded of Captain Kirk’s apocryphal request to the ship’s engineer: ‘Beam me up, Scotty.’” (See also “I am your father, Luke” and “Elementary, my dear Watson.”)

3. “The huge tunnel-boring machine looks like an alien enemy of the starship Enterprise.”
This awkwardly worded allusion to the Star Trek oeuvre is easily smoothed out to refer to the program rather than the spacecraft it featured: “The huge tunnel-boring machine looks like an alien vessel out of Star Trek.”

4. “The trend has taken off like the starship Enterprise making the jump to hyperspeed.”
Hyperspeed is a technological convention in the Star Wars franchise; starships in the Star Trek canon, by contrast, achieve warp speed. Make sure you keep your fictional technologies in the correct universe: “The trend has taken off like the starship Enterprise boldly going at warp 9.”

5. “This agreement isn’t just a big step; it’s a quantum leap.”
A quantum leap is commonly misunderstood to refer to a massive change. However, the literal meaning is of instantaneous change of any magnitude. Revise to reflect that fact: “This agreement isn’t just a big step; it’s a momentous one that will have a world-changing impact.”

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11 Responses to “5 Fixes for Pop-Culture Pile-Ups”

  • Matur Joseph

    I would like you to add me into your mailing list to get learn basic English as it will be part of my revision.

  • Bruce Altner

    Your characterization of a quantum leap as “an instantaneous change of any magnitude” is technically incorrect. Rather, a quantum leap (in atomic physics anyway) refers to a discrete, rather than continuous, change among energy levels. I think you have replaced one common misconception (that it means a large change in magnitude) with another (that it means an abrupt change).

    Thanks for Daily Writing Tips, it’s a great resource!

    -B. Altner

  • Peter

    Your characterization of a quantum leap as “an instantaneous change of any magnitude” is technically incorrect. Rather, a quantum leap (in atomic physics anyway) refers to a discrete, rather than continuous, change among energy levels. I think you have replaced one common misconception (that it means a large change in magnitude) with another (that it means an abrupt change).

    How is that a misconception? Any change between discrete states/positions is necessarily abrupt.

    {It is interesting how “quantum leap” has come to mean a large change when its proper usage refers to the smallest possible change, though}

  • ApK

    I disagree. A quantum leap is sudden and dramatic change. The fact that it is ‘small’ is irrelevant. Everything on the quantum scale is small, and on that scale, a quantum leap–an electron jumping to higher energy orbit–is a HUGE deal. The term is used correctly in pop culture, even if it’s exact origin is not known.

    I also don’t think the Kryptonite lock thing is bad either. True, the writers of ‘The Big Bang Theory” would likely have Sheldon criticize itfor the reason given, but since the ‘Kryponite’ mentioned is a bike lock company, not the fictional element, the point that Superman’s strength is not needed to defeat it, is a perfectly correct and understandable choice.

    ApK

  • ApK

    Edit: by “even if it’s exact origin is not known” I meant “not known by many of the non-science types who use the term.”

  • Bruce Altner

    We are told in this posting that a quantum leap is an “instantaneous change of any magnitude” but while many people may use it this way, it makes no sense at all to do so.

    From the point of view of science and technology the term “quantum” refers to a property that is quantized, e.g., of a discrete amount. It has nothing to say about how big that amount is, nor how small. It also says nothing abruptness. It simply means that a property may only take on certain values rather than any value at all.

    OK, forget about physics for a moment, that’s only for geeks like me. Consider the meaning of “leap.” No one characterizes a small step off the curb as a leap, but jumping off a cliff is certainly one. This would suggest that “leap” does indeed refer to magnitude and not abruptness. In fact, the higher the cliff, the LONGER it takes before you hit the ground, so why should a leap imply a sudden change of state? The landing of Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969 was a “giant leap for mankind” but it took a decade to achieve, so it certainly wasn’t a sudden one.

    So the accurate meaning of quantum leap would be a large change (leap) that can only occur between discrete states. No one uses it that way, of course, but the popular meaning is still incorrect. Wasn’t that the whole point of this blog posting?

  • Peter

    From the point of view of science and technology the term “quantum” refers to a property that is quantized, e.g., of a discrete amount. It has nothing to say about how big that amount is, nor how small. It also says nothing abruptness. It simply means that a property may only take on certain values rather than any value at all.

    Which implies “abruptness”. Something being in state A and then changing to state B without ever being in an intermediate state is an abrupt change, by definition.

    The point of saying “quantum” change/leap is that the change is at the level of quantization, therefore the smallest possible change that can occur; no smaller change is possible because intermediate states don’t exist due to quantization. If a smaller change were possible, it would be a leap-of-multiple-quanta 🙂

  • ApK

    If I’m not mistaken, the term was coined to describe the counter-intuitive observation that electrons don’t reside at any of the perceived intermediary energy levels, but only when enough energy is added, do they suddenly leap to the next orbit.
    If electron orbits had been thought of like planets orbiting the sun, then the idea that with just a TINY BIT more push, Mars could instantly and suddenly appear in the orbit of Jupiter, would seem to be a huge and sudden change. That’s why it was called a ‘quantum leap’ and not a ‘quantum shift’ or a ‘quantum minimally-allowed-move’ or what have you, yes?

    Since that appears to be the reason the term was coined, how can using the same meaning in popular analogy be wrong?

    ApK

  • Bruce Altner

    With regard to Peter’s comment, abruptness in the sense of a quantum change (no intermediate values) still does not imply that the change is instantaneous. Consider a ladder vs a ramp (quantum vs continuous). When I go up a ladder from step A to B I can do this quickly or slowly…the abruptness has nothing to do with time but only means that I can’t be in an intermediate state. Same applies to going down a ladder, which I do a lot more slowly than when climbing!

    Of course, in all these discussions of instantaneous changes nothing has been said of the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle, one version of which states that the more precise you are about measuring an energy change the less precisely you can know how long it takes to make the transition (up or down). Conversely, an instantaneous leap (no uncertainty in the time) would leave you clueless about the energy change. A state that only exists for a short time cannot have a definite energy. I’ll grant that calling a quantum leap an instantaneous change of any magnitude is consistent with this version of the uncertainty relation…but then it would also be consistent to say that a state with a definite energy would take forever to change…and that’s a leap of faith.

  • Peter

    When I go up a ladder from step A to B I can do this quickly or slowly

    If it’s a quantum ladder, you can’t. You can only teleport instantaneously from step A to step B. When you speak of going up one step quickly or slowly, you’re talking about moving your body slowly through the space between the rungs, but in the quantum ladder there isn’t any “between”.

  • Cecily

    Wonderful: the comments lend credence to Mark’s opening point. 😉

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