29 August 2012

Bright as a million light bulbs

(Translating technical journalism is proud to post a contribution by friend and colleague John Smellie, curator of English as she is spoke/Scoop.it! and owner of language services company E-Files. Many thanks John.)

Much to the chagrin of the purists of the scientific world, technical journalists are constantly coining new units of measurement for lay readers. Thanks to them, we're all familiar with the "football stadium" and the "width of hair", while measuring CO2 emissions in "thousands of trees" helps us put the impact of global warming into perspective.

Translators of these colourful metaphors sometimes have to strip out any regional references. French media outlets, for example, like to measure Chevron's devastation of the Ecuadorian rainforest in terms of "an area half the size of Corsica". For a translator of technical journalism, it's all in a day's work (about 12 hours, last time I counted).

According to a recent article on www.phys.org, the Mars rover ("about the size of a small car") is equipped with a laser that "briefly focuses the energy of a million light bulbs onto an area the size of a pinhead". One knowledgeable reader was quick to comment that the laser (built by Thales) is in fact a "pulsed 1067 nm Q-switched diode-pumped solid-state laser that delivers 40 mJ per pulse with a pulse duration of less than 10 ns at a 10 Hz maximum repetition rate".

For us lesser mortals, the light bulb metaphor will do just fine!

Fortunately, phys.org's readers have a sense of humour. Later in the conversation about the rock-zapping laser on Mars, Torbjorn Larsson enthused "the laser shot showed some non-volatile carbon". And while no ratios had yet been released by NASA, Torbjorn assumed "they would be [measured] in 'smidgens' or 'yo mommas IQ'".

(Steve added:)
WolframAlpha, a powerful online computational tool that can handle plain language queries in English, gives conventional values and units for a "football stadium" (area), "width of human hair" (length), Corsica (area), a "pinhead" (area), but it can't tell you anything about a "tree" of CO2, the volume of a "small car", or a "light bulb" of energy or brightness.

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