By Scott Sullivan
The Physics Made Easy series I started Aug. 3 has drawn rave reviews:
- “What are you raving about?” – D.Z., Douglas
- “Worst thing you ever wrote. And that’s saying something.” – P.J., Saugatuck
The series is lamer yet if I stop with one. So I consulted a technical writer — someone who actually understands physics — to help with Part Two. I’d share his name but he said he’d kill me.
“Go to YouTube and type in ‘Turbo Encabulator,’” he said. “It’s what I deal with daily.”
The video showed a scientist — wearing a lab coat and standing before a diagram — explaining earnest-ly: “For a number of years now, work has been proceeding in order to bring perfection to the crudely-conceived idea of a transmission that would not only supply inverse reactive current for use in unilateral phase detractors, but would also be capable of automatically synch- ronizing cardinal grammeters. Such an instrument is the turbo encabulator.”
At last! I thought.
“Basically,” he continued, “the only new principle involved is that instead of power being generated by the relative motion of conductors and fluxes, it is produced by the modial interaction of magneto-reluctance and capacitive diractance.”
Wait a minute …
“The original machine,” he went on, “had a base plate of pre-famulated amulite surmounted by a malleable logarithmic casing in such a way that the two spurving bearings were in a direct line with the panametric fan. The latter consisted simply of six hydrocoptic marzlevanes, so fitted to the ambifacient lunar waneshaft that side fumbling was effectively prevented …
“It’s not cheap,” he concluded, holding up a sheet that read $750 million, “but I’m sure the government will buy it.”
Turns out the turbo-encabulator was a prototype for retro- and micro-encabulators, entabulators and more made-up mischief — a long-standing scientists’ in-joke for how to use technobabble to sell sketchy products.
Who’d have thought engineers had a sense of humor? The larger lesson is every specialty — journalism included — uses jargon that leaves those who don’t speak it not comprehending.
The latter is what users often want to do for aggressive/defensive reasons. All that’s clear in our intent is to obfuscate.
It’s easy in my profession to be a word bully. Buy ink by the barrel, we can scream down anyone. If we want to preach to the choir — those who speak our “language” — we can tap our vocabularies like an arsenal. If we want to reach out to — and hear from — others, it is important we be more generous. Go with simpler words, nouns and verbs.
Which is why I am happy Physics Made Easy has been a disaster. With luck it will just get worse. My initial conceit — since I don’t know physics, I am qualified to explain it to others like me — now strikes me as kin to the guy who sees a Picasso and says, “My kid could paint that.”
He’s not wrong per se. But the point isn’t being “right.” Study art, science, writing or any discipline and you learn simplicity can be intended and unintended. The former holds for Picasso and others whose works are “primitive” by design. simplicity is the ultimate refinement.
The turbo-encabulator was first described by British graduate student John Quick and published in 1944. The concept was quickly picked up by corporations not known for their senses of humor either. General Electric, Chrysler, Rockwell Automation and others included it in their literature and videos.
There’s a physics to words, whether they are real, made up or both. Depending on how we use them, words have matter, gravity, energy and impart motion through space and time. All we need is to master them, not them us. Easy, huh?a