Today’s Nobel Prize announcement was for physics, specifically for the invention of efficient blue LEDs, which is great both because it allows for proper white LEDs (when combined with the old red and green LEDs that are apparently easier to make), but more importantly because it means all the talk of this year’s Nobel prize for medicine has settled down a bit. And of course, all the news stories about this year’s Nobel prize in medicine refer to the clever folks who discovered the “GPS for the brain”, or worse yet “GPS system for the brain“, or “Brain’s GPS Discovery“, which makes me grit my teeth. Bad metaphors make me grit my teeth, of course, as does confusion about geospatial things – the combination of the two is just torture.
The annoying thing is that the global positioning system could have some pretty good metaphorical uses, but only if properly used as meaning something that tells you where you are. Ideally, the metaphor would also involve triangulation from multiple points, like the GPS does, but that’s optional. The problem is that most people try to use it when it would be better to use GIS – a Geographic Information System. The GPS tells you where you are – the GIS tells you where everything else is (that bit on your GPS receiver that displays maps and maybe a little pictogram of a car is the GIS). So this new discovery in medicine should be called “The brain’s GIS”, if you gotta call it anything.
The other advantage there is that, if you want to get pedantic (and I rarely pass up a chance to), GIS is a common noun, while GPS is a proper noun – there is, at least to one way of thinking, only one Global Positioning System, which consists of the receivers, the satellites, and all the bits at observatories that control it all (you could argue that GLONASS, Galileo, and BeiDou, the non-American versions of the GPS, are, in a sense, GPS-es, but lets drop that for now). It gets tricky arguing that “a brain” has a GPS, is what I’m saying, even if it did mimic the function.
Talking about a “GPS system for the brain” is just extra annoying since the word “system” is already in the acronym (or initialization, if you want to be pedantic). And of course, “Brain’s GPS discovery” just a good ol’ crash blossom.
Anyway, it’s a bad metaphor and everyone should just stop using it now. This is also what Randall Monroe is a goddamn national treasure (well, one reason) – he’s about the only one I’ve ever seen get it right.