Analogies

by Krishna on June 3, 2007

Long back, when I was learning optics in my Physics class, I had a conceptual problem understanding refraction, the phenomenon where light changes directly when it passes from one medium to another, say while passing through a glass prism. It was not the equations, real-life examples or problems that baffled me. But I really didn’t get the “why” — why would light shift direction when the medium it passes through changes.

Then one day, I came across an analogy that made it clear as daylight. Look at the following diagram explaining the concept of refraction:

You can see how the light ray was traveling at a certain angle (say “x”) to the glass, then bends towards the perpendicular to reduce the angle and then as they came out, they bend away so that the angle is widened. Very theoretical and it can even be confusing to remember when it bends into and when it bends away.

Now, consider the analogy. You want to walk across a field and reach the opposite corner as quickly as you can. Now imagine that the middle of the field have all the grass removed and is filled with sand. Here is the situation you need to deal with:

  1. The sandy portion of the field is much tougher to walk on. So you want to minimize the time you want to walk on it. Instead of walking diagonally across the sand, you would walk straight.
  2. However by walking straight, you will now be walking a much greater distance across the rest of the field.
  3. So the solution is to find the best compromise between the smallest overall distance you need to travel and the smallest distance you need to walk across the sand. Hence you bend your path a little, but not all the way.

Analogies like these can help us understand concepts better. Another analogy I like very much is the comparison of software development and building construction, which is elaborately dealt with in Steve McConnell’s “Code Complete”. This is very useful sometimes in explaining to non-technical customers the importance of controlling changes to the product.

Proverbs also contain gems of great analogies. Although there are many opposing proverbs like “Look before you leap” versus “He who hesitates is lost”, they represent useful ways to understand the extremes to which we are accustomed to. The best way to handle the wisdom in proverbs is to understand the trade-offs with different approaches in a situation. For instance, in the two proverbs I cited in this paragraph, you need to trade-off the need to deliberate versus the need for action in a particular case.

The one danger with analogies is to carry them too far. After all, analogies are used to compare a situation in one context to a similar one in another context. It is important not to ignore some of the contextual aspects of each situation. For example, the current Web 2.0 gold rush can be compared to the original Web bubble, but how similar are the two? Will the outcomes be the same?

So, use analogies to help you gain more insight into the problem or situation you are facing. Use your judgment and rational thinking to determine the right solution.

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