Thursday, December 13, 2012


The realm of what is known is ever-growing; technology is advancing, exciting medications are being developed, and new fundamental particles are being discovered. With this vast amount of new knowledge being produced, how can an individual stay up to date with the most exciting scientific news? One such way is by reading Popular Science, a magazine dedicated to bringing scientific news and innovations to the general public. Popular Science has been around for more than a hundred years, and over the course of its long history, it has run stories ranging from rocket science to biology and medicine. A recent article, an excerpt from the work of Dr. Seth Horowitz, explores the possibility of creating a sound based weapon to cause peoples’ heads to explode. Despite the somewhat fantastic subject, the article is grounded in science and works to educate readers. In order to both educate and entertain the reader, the text effectively balances scientific fact with journalistic creative style through the use of analogy, humor, and a conversational tone.

            The author’s use of analogy keeps the article educational by helping readers to understand the scientific concepts presented in the article that they may be unfamiliar with.  An analogy is basically a simile that goes beyond mere imagery and actually shows conceptual similarity between two things.  If readers didn’t have any background knowledge on the concepts the author tries to bring up, the information presented in the article won’t mean anything to the audience.  The use of analogies greatly increases an author’s ability to convey abstract concepts to their readers, which is why Dr. Horowitz would include it in his article.  This is one analogy he uses in the text:
“The problem is that while your skull may vibrate maximally at those frequencies, it is surrounded by soft wet muscular and connective tissue and filled with gloppy brains and blood that do not resonate at those frequencies and thus damp out the resonant vibration like a rug placed in front of your stereo speakers.”
The comparison of dampening of the skull’s resonance by flesh with a rug over stereo speakers is something that the majority of the readers of Popular Science could understand.  By relaying this concept to the readers, the author keeps the text educational through the use of a creative analogy.

            The article discusses scientific myths about sonic weapons being able to affect humans with explosive results, but instead of explaining the scientific basis for these ideas in a strictly academic manner, the author uses humor to make the article more interesting.  An example of this can be seen in this section of the text:
“In fact, when a living human head was substituted for a dry skull in the same study, the 12 kHz resonance peak was 70 dB lower, with the strongest resonance now at about 200Hz, and even that was 30 dB lower than the highest resonance of the dry skull. You would probably have to use something on the order of a 240 dB source to get the head to resonate destructively, and at that point it would be much faster to just hit the person over the head with the emitter and be done with it. So while we still cannot use infrasound to defend ourselves against dangerous severed heads and have not found the "brown sound" that would allow us to embarrass our friends, infrasound can cause potentially dangerous effects on living bodies—as long as you have a very high-powered pneumatic displacement source or operate in a very contained environment for a long time.”
The author incorporates numbers and facts, but also includes humor in his writing.  Mixing in humor among the cold data not only keeps the reader interested, but also helps the reader to grasp what the information means.  This use of scientific data combined with creative humor keeps an effective balance between education and entertainment for the reader.

            Further support for an effective balance can be found in the author’s use of plain language to throughout the article. The author uses a conversational tone to convey the findings of scientific research without overcomplicating the language. This article has an average of 11th grade reading level, which is an accessible level for the magazine’s target audience, individuals who have working knowledge of scientific concepts.  The blend of conversational tone and scientific facts can be seen in this excerpt:

“For example, imagine I am a mad scientist (a total stretch, I know) who wants to build a weapon using sound to make people’s heads explode. Resonance frequencies of human skulls have been calculated as part of studies looking at bone conduction for certain types of hearing aid devices. A dry (i.e., removed from the body and on a table) human skull has prominent acoustic resonances at about 9 and 12kHz, slightly lesser ones at 14 and 17kHz, and even smaller ones at 32 and 38kHz. These are convenient sounds because I won’t have to lug around a really big emitter for low frequencies, and most of them are not ultrasonic, so I don’t have to worry about smearing gel on the skull to get it to blow up.”
By employing this tone when discussing the scientific data in the article, the information is much less dense, making the article easier to read and keeping a balance between education and entertainment.

            The educational and entertainment success of Dr. Horowitz’s article discussing current scientific findings are brought about by his effective use of analogy, humor, and conversational tone.  However, my examination of Dr. Horowitz’s work and the articles found in Popular Science as a whole is rather limited.  Further questions might be addressed, such as if articles in Popular Science generally include the same plain language “shell” wrapped around pieces of concrete scientific language found here, or perhaps if  scientists in the field actually view Popular Science as an accurate reporter of current findings. In the end, Popular Science is a source of entertainment and through its broad range of articles and topics, effectively entertains its audience and keeps them coming back for more of what they love: science.

You can read the full article here.

---John E. Yeakel

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