Lost in Translation: How a Metaphor Can Be a Map

Words, encoded with numerical values, plotted in 3D space. Each dot represents a word!

Oftentimes when I tell people I’m a math major, that’s all they want to know about it. Many people, unfortunately, have a tense relationship with Calculus, which means that I’m fraternizing with the enemy. But I believe that math gets a bad rap, and part of that comes from a lack of understanding.

My research uses math, but the focus of my project is on language and communication. Understanding the connection between math and language in this project helps to explain my goals. This week, during our seminar, we discussed metaphors for our projects. To analyze language, I need to turn it into a format that I can work with. In my case, this means numbers! I told my peers to think of it like Google Translate – except instead of translating from French to English, for example, I’m translating words into numbers. I can then analyze and manipulate those numerical representations to examine similarities in language. By using a metaphor, I am guiding those outside my field along an increasingly well-trodden mental path in my mind – essentially drawing a mental map for them to follow to arrive at an understanding of my research.

Breaking complex paradigms down into relatable or easily digestible metaphors or processes is an essential part of understanding my own research. Albert Einstein once said (or perhaps it was Feynman), “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” In addition to metaphors, it’s important for me to avoid jargon and focus on concrete or tangible concepts. For instance, it’s much easier to understand, “Word embeddings are just words that have been transformed into numbers” than it is to understand, “Word embeddings are learned representations of text in the form of numeric vectors”.

Being able to explain my research in simplistic terms goes hand in hand with being able to explain why it matters. Once I can explain what I’m trying to accomplish in simple terms, I can situate its relevance in simple terms. So why is turning words into numbers important? The overarching goal of my project is to analyze what happens once people begin communicating on Twitter. If I can figure out that something quantitatively happens (such as the numbers representing the language of the two communicators becoming closer together than before they started communicating), that tells us something about how people communicate. Understanding more about how we communicate allows us to share information more easily, which is critical, especially when working on interdisciplinary projects!

I am not an island!

As I explore my interests this summer, and get closer to my goals of finding a way to use mathematics in a more public-service oriented way, I know that I am only scratching the surface of the information I will need to accomplish this. For instance, if I want to use my mathematical background to create mathematical models of biological systems, I will need to collaborate with biologists who understand the landscape and can inform my decisions. If I want to move into data science work to analyze public policy, I will need to listen to experts who understand these structures, as well as individuals from the community to inform my queries. For both of these pursuits, however, my ability to understand and explain my decisions and processes will be crucial.

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