In the first piece of science journalism I ever wrote, I compared deciphering the effects of climate change to baking a cake. I was a college sophomore. This was homework. We were to read a study and then find an analogy for it, transforming what we found dizzying and technical into something easily imaginable. In my hands, an existential threat became dessert. I don’t remember exactly why I thought that computer models showing possible futures for an ocean inlet were best conveyed through recipes and increments of butter. But I do remember what (I think) the professor wanted us to remember: When an idea is hard to grasp — too big, too small, too abstruse, too abstract — liken it to something else.
It’s so fundamental it’s almost a cliché, so prevalent it’s almost unnoticeable. We describe genes as blueprints, receptors and viruses as locks and keys. We take the measure of galaxies in celestial football fields.