You Know that Thing Where…?

What do you do when Google doesn’t understand what you’re talking about?

Google is a brilliant tool for the modern era. It can search for anything in the blink of an eye…well, not quite. Searching for print books and other copyrighted material is incomplete, at best, and for scholarly articles, you’re better off looking through a dedicated database like ADS or JSTOR. And let’s not even start on the open access issue.

But there is another problem I’ve noticed with Google over the years (and to be fair, this applies to search engines in general, not just Google). The problem is when you don’t know how to search for something because you can’t adequately describe it, or worse, you can describe it, but it’s apparently not in the terms that everybody else does. I’m talking about the kind of thing where you could tell an actual human being, “I’m looking for X,” and they would immediately respond, “Oh, you mean Y.” A real human would find what you need instantly, but Google will go on blindly searching for X, maybe even synonyms of X, but unless you get lucky it will never lead you to the magic word, Y, that will actually answer your question).

What do you do then? I have no idea.

If you’re still confused, here are some examples. (And if you know the answers to any of them, please comment.) None of these are particularly notable. They’re just the ones that happened to cross my mind that I’ve had trouble finding in the past.

1. How long would it take a microscopic black hole created by the Large Hadron Collider to eat the Earth? (Please note: there are good reasons to think this is impossible.) I’ve looked for this answer a few times and never really got very far. It’s not an obvious question because you need to figure out how often a micro black hole, which is much smaller than a proton, would eat a proton, which is a quantum waveform, anyway. That’s complicated because the Earth is under pressure, but it turns out there is a name for the amount of time it takes for a black hole to eat its own weight in gas. It’s called the Eddington time, and it’s about 400 million years. Any faster, and it generates too much heat, repelling the gas. The Eddington time is really only mentioned in scholarly articles, but it’s related to the better-known concept of the Eddington luminosity.

This is the problem with Google. It happens when there is only one way that something is commonly described, and related search terms don’t turn anything up. If you flail around, searching for “How long would it take a black hole to eat the Earth?” and a bunch of other, related things, you’re not going to turn up scholarly articles because scholars don’t talk that way. They only use the phrase “Eddington time”. So it’s only if you’re already an astrophysicist, and you already know the magic incantation, “Eddington time”, that you’re going to find you’re answer. It’s an Internet Catch-22.

2. Is there a concept in psychology for when children are more frightened by their parents’ reaction to a scary thing than the scary thing itself? For example, a child might climb a tree without fear, but when they see their parents freaking out about them being up a tree, they might freak out then and develop a fear of heights. What little information I could find suggests that this is rare. However, I have heard this idea voiced multiple times in the past. I just can’t remember where. And I was surprised that none of the obvious search terms turned up anything.

3. What’s the deal with calling kings, queens, and lords by the names of their countries? This is a form of metonymy that has been used for a long like. An example comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where Macduff addresses the rightful king, Malcolm, as “Oh, Scotland, Scotland!” Scotland is used for Malcolm’s name, not the country.

An even more specific construction, not used by Shakespeare here, would take the form “Scotland of Scotland”. That is, Scotland (the king) of Scotland (the country). I’ve seen this in multiple places. In Doctor Who, the king of the planet Peladon is called “Peladon of Peladon”. In the 25th century world of The Stars My Destination, the CEOs of the centuries-old mega-corporations have become feudal lords with names like “Kodak of Kodak”. It doesn’t seem to be a new construction.

I don’t even know how to begin to search for this because it doesn’t have a fixed form. The only word that’s constant is “of”, and I don’t know any historical examples to look for.

Edit, July 15, 2018: When I wrote this post, it mostly out of frustration, though I believe most of what I said is still valid. However, I did find an answer to this specific question. I eventually stumbled on a commentary on The Stars My Destination that explained that this is the standard form of address for the heads of Scottish clans. It’s still a really weird direction for future megacorps to go.

4. What do you call the very phenomenon I’m talking about? Searching for how to search for things doesn’t turn up anything useful. I found a few references to “magic words”, but they apparently weren’t magic enough for me to dig deeper. This is the most frustrating part. I can’t search for things I can’t describe properly, and I can’t figure out how to search for them because this is one of them.

Maybe Google just needs to hurry up and invent A.I. that can understand human language.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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