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Phlebotinum Analogy

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Egon: I'm worried. It's getting crowded in there and all my data points to something big on the horizon.
Winston: What do you mean, big?
Egon: Well, let's say this Twinkie represents the normal amount of psychokinetic energy in the New York area. Based on this morning's sample, it would be a Twinkie... thirty-five feet long, weighing approximately six hundred pounds.
Winston: That's a big Twinkie.

With as much Applied Phlebotinum flying around, there's just as much Techno Babble around to explain it. However, when even Techno Babble piles on too much, it too needs to be explained away. Thus, we have the Phlebotinum Analogy. It consists of using a simple simile to explain away something that is seemingly complex to the audience. Really, the only reason that it would be confusing to us is because nine-tenths of the time, whatever the character is explaining has been completely made up, anyway.

Expect Lies to Children to show up in the examples a lot. Compare with Hiroshima as a Unit of Measure when it comes to less technobabbly, much bigger things. See also Layman's Terms.

Super-Trope to Fold the Page, Fold the Space.


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    Audio Plays 
  • A good one from the Big Finish Doctor Who audio adventure "The Shadow of the Scourge":
    "I'm inside the Scourge, which is inside of my consciousness, which is inside of the Scourge, so if we detonate one it's like two Russian dolls eating each other!"

    Fan Works 

    Films Live-Action 
  • In Concussion, Dr. Omalu explains to his wife how brain trauma manifests itself in football players by explaining that, unlike animals with built-in "shock absorbers" around their brain, human brains are disconnected from the skull and susceptible to irreparable damage from repeated impacts. To illustrate, he violently rattles an eyeball inside a jar of fluid, with the eyeball slamming violently into the sides of the jar, mimicking what happens to the brain when rattled by a powerful hit.
  • In The Fly (1958), Andre Delambre takes it one step further. Not only does he use the way televisions transmit pictures through the air as an analogy for how his teleporter transmits matter, he insists that since a television isn't all that fantastic or impressive, a teleporter isn't either.
  • Ghostbusters (1984) has the scene where Egon points out to Winston just how much the levels of psychokinetic energy in New York City have risen. Using an ordinary Twinkie as a baseline, he says the current levels would be represented by "a Twinkie thirty-five feet long, weighing approximately six hundred pounds."
  • In The Theory of Everything, Stephen and Jane Hawking invite their family friend Jonathan to dinner. Stephen has trouble speaking because of his ALS, so Jane uses their peas and potatoes to explain Stephen's physics theories.

  • In Animorphs, Marco's dad tries to explain Zero-space to Marco (not knowing that he's traveled in Z-space-capable ships before, and every time he morphs his mass moves in and out of Z-space) with an analogy of a 3D cone, whose surface is 2D. The point of the cone is a singularity from which all points on the cone can be reached, allowing Faster-Than-Light Travel and interstellar communication.
  • Discworld:
    • Parodied in Night Watch, where Lu Tze's explanation of why it's easier to get Vimes back to the present than it was to make sure the time loop that has been formed by Carcer killing his mentor before he met him was stabilized, (it's like climbing up, and then jumping off, a mountain) is satisfactory to Vimes. Then Qu starts to point out that that's not how it works at all and Lu Tze tells him to shut up because it'll prevent too many further questions.
    • In Making Money, Adora Belle Dearheart calls the Cabinet of Curiosities "like a sliding puzzle, but with lots more directions to slide." Ponder Stibbons responds "That is a very graphic analogy which aids understanding wonderfully while being, strictly speaking, wrong in every possible way."
    • In Thief of Time, Lobsang explains how he's putting time back by comparing it to a jigsaw (in which the pieces are scattered across the universe, moving, and mixed up with other jigsaws), before adding "Everything I have just said is nonsense. It bears no resemblence to the truth of the matter in any way at all." Sir Pterry, who co-created the phrase "Lies to Children", is fond of this gag.
  • Doctor Who Expanded Universe New Series Adventures: The Pirate Loop includes a great one of these (paraphrased):
    Martha: So, it's like a stone skipping across the surface of a lake?
    The Doctor: Good analogy! I wish I'd said it. Can we just pretend I did?
  • In Michael Crichton's Sphere, a physicist character explains gravity and black holes to some of the other characters using fruit on a table.
  • Onboard a wormhole-constructing spaceship, ship mechanic and resident Cloudcuckoolander Kizzy is giving newbie Rosemary in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet a crash course on how they construct wormholes (or "tunnels") for the public to use in intergalactic travel, and how these tunnels make space-hopping functionally an average commute despite actual space being millions of light years apart. What follows is a lengthy description of the equipment and process required, along with a handy demonstration using a napkin, before Kizzy sums up it up best as: "It's like a doorway connecting two rooms, only the rooms are on opposite sides of town." Rosemary, a mere ship clerk, still has to take a few moments to wrap her brain around it.
    Rosemary: So the only place the distance between those two points has been changed is... within the tunnel?
    Kizzy: [grins] Physics is a bitch, right?

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5 has fallen back on this one a few times. Not to anywhere near Star Trek's level, of course.
  • During a government meeting in Chernobyl, Legasov explains how radiation affects people by comparing the particles to miniature bullets.
  • Doctor Who is riddled with this trope.
    • A fine example occurs when the Fourth Doctor attempts to explain the transdimensional TARDIS to Leela by showing her two boxes and explaining that if the bigger box (which has been placed farther away and looks smaller than the actual smaller box) could be kept where it was and yet located where the small box is, it would fit inside the small box.
    • This is subverted in "The Runaway Bride", in which Donna resolutely fails to understand what the Doctor's talking about ("I'm a pencil inside a mug?"), and "Blink", where the Doctor's inability to explain to Sally Sparrow the way time works (because of a transcript he's locked into saying) led to the Trope Namer example for Timey-Wimey Ball.
    • "The Sound of Drums": The Doctor uses a strangely appropriate analogy to describe the way a Perception Filter works.
      The Doctor: It's like, when you fancy someone and they don't even know you exist!
      [he runs off, Martha looks frustrated]
      Jack: [to Martha] You too, huh?
    • In recent years, especially, the Doctor has developed a tendency of telling his companions that their attempts at this trope are, in fact, completely inaccurate, but that they should keep up that line of thinking if it's what helps them understand. From "The Doctor's Wife":
      Amy: Wait, so we're in a tiny bubble universe sticking to the side of the bigger bubble universe?
      The Doctor: Yeah... No! But if it helps, yes.
  • In Eureka, the geniuses often use this to explain the Problem of the Week to Carter. The standard format is that one of the regulars gives a Techno Babble explanation of what's happening, and then use the analogy when Carter admits he's no idea what they're talking about. Carter then proposes a solution based on the metaphor, which Henry or Alison translates back into Techno Babble to provide the actual solution.
  • The Flash (2014): In "Paradox", Jay Garrick explains to Barry Allen that no matter how many times you try to fix things with time travel, the best you'll get is a Close-Enough Timeline. Jay illustrates this by breaking a coffee cup. No matter how well you try to put it back together, there will always be cracks.
  • House plays with the trope; all the other doctors are generally happy to speak to one another in the proper jargon they all understand, but House himself likes talking this way: sometimes to wind his colleagues up or freak patients out, sometimes to stimulate lateral thinking, sometimes purely, as they say, for the lulz. He's been known on occasion to insist that the others speak in analogies, too.
    House: We think you have a tumour, easily removed surgically. We're going to poke it with a stick.
  • This was parodied in Dead Ringers, in which House asks his Entourage of Improbably Attractive Sidekicks to first describe a medical problem in an impenetrably Techno Babble way, and then to come out with an overly emotive Phlebotinum Analogy. "...His brain is literally eating itself!!"
  • In Lost, Ben tells Locke that there is a "box on this island that can contain anything you want." And when Locke takes it a little too literally, Ben states outright "the box is a metaphor, John." Hilariously, later we do see something that can be described as a magic box. Locke asks Ben "Is that the box?" Ben is confused for a moment, but quickly answers "no."
  • Happens often enough in NUMB3RS that in "Brutus", when Charlie explains his analysis of a directed graph then fails to explain, one of the FBI agents listening prompts him by saying "Which is just like..." An example of one of the times it's used: Internet Relay Chat, as used by hackers, is like a sea full of boats passing each other leaving nothing but water wakes passing cargo between them. Lampshaded in "Greatest Hits", where Charlie starts to make an analogy, only for the agent he's working with to cut him off and circle it back to the original scenario.
    Charlie: Imagine that you're a mountain goat, trying to get to the next peak, and you know that there is a snow leopard in the valley below...
    Agent: How about if I imagine that I'm a bank robber looking for a target?
  • In Red Dwarf, there's a famous example from "Stasis Leak" that goes as follows:
    Cat: What is it?
    Rimmer: It's a rent in the space-time continuum.
    Cat: So what is it?
    Lister: The stasis room freezes time, you know, makes time stand still. So whenever you have a leak, it must preserve whatever it's leaked into, and it's leaked into this room.
    Cat: So what is it?
    Rimmer: It's singularity, a point in the universe where the normal laws of time and space don't apply.
    Cat: So what is it?!
    Lister: It's a hole back into the past.
    Cat: Oh, a magic door! Well, why didn't you say?
  • Constantly used in Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis.
    • "It's like a miniature universe in a bottle," says McKay, talking about a ZPM.
    • For that matter, almost any abnormality of the Stargate system is explained in terms of telephones; dialing your own gate gives you a "busy signal", etc.
      Daniel: [excitedly turns to Teal'c] What do you get when you dial your own phone number?
      [Teal'c stares blankly at him]
      Daniel: Wrong person to ask.
      [turn to Gen. Hammond and repeat the question]
      Gen. Hammond: You get a busy signal.
    • Also in Stargate Atlantis, a scientist back at SGC explains his intent to relay a transmission with an analogy to 101 Dalmatians (specifically the "twilight bark" scene), as his kids love that movie. The audience completely fails to understand, so he falls back to the Gondor Calls for Aid sequence of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King instead. Whereby they all visibly understand.
    • Fantastically toyed with in one conversation between Zelenka and Sheppard. Zelenka is trying to track a device so they can find kidnapped Daniel and Rodney.
      Zelenka: No offense, but the math I'm using is so complicated I don't know if I can dumb it down enough for it to make sense.
      Sheppard: Try.
    When Zelenka does come up with an analogy, Sheppard proudly says "I understand that", only to be told that the analogy isn't at all an accurate depiction of what he's doing.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
    • In "The Best Of Both Worlds: Part I", an away team beams aboard the Borg cube to rescue Picard and also to try to stop the cube so it can be attacked by the Enterprise's modified main deflector dish. Dr. Crusher suggests destroying the Borg's power distribution nodes by way of "The mosquito's point of view: If we sting them in a tender spot, they might stop for a minute to scratch."
    • In "Galaxy's Child", a larva space creature is feeding on the Enterprise, both because the ship's energy is compatible, and because it thinks the Enterprise is its mother. So they change the form of the energy to something incompatible, which they call "souring the milk".
    • Later, in "Relics", when La Forge is retelling this incident to Scotty, Scotty uses this exact phrase, despite La Forge (presumably) using only Technobabble in his explanation.

  • Happens regularly in Nebulous, where the eponymous professor's analogies get twisted beyond the point of Metaphorgotten.
  • In the Torchwood radio play "The Dead Line", using an EMP to dislodge an alien presence in the phone system (which, in the scenario presented, makes sense) is described as "just like a computer uses an EM pulse to repel viruses" (which is total nonsense).

    Visual Novels 
  • While Okabe can mostly keep up with Kurisu's explanations on Kerr black holes and theoretical physics in Steins;Gate, Daru and Mayuri don't quite manage to do the same. Thus, Kurisu and Okabe end up explaining physics with Magical Girls and video games respectively.
  • Happens a lot in the Nasuverse's due to its Functional Magic. Much more expanded upon in Fate/stay night due to the protagonist being an amateur magus himself.

  • Lampshaded in Adventurers!, here:
    Drecker: We gave the ball of death a giant cavity and now it's past the enamel! There! Fine! Okay?
    Drecker: Oh, like I'm the only one who took a correspondence course in apt metaphors. Sheesh.
  • An explanation of Deep Time's plan for ending the time war in Starslip:
    High Agent Blank: Put another way: the future as we know it was chiseled over billions of years from a stone block. We know what the finished statue looks like. So let's make a mold of that and pour the universe into it. Then we don't have to worry about whether or not it gets chiseled right.
  • In Digger, the statue eventually explains how Digger came to the story's setting by saying that Digger's home and the temple she emerged from were like two pieces of fabric, sewn together by the fossil she brought through with her, a.k.a. the "bones of the sea".
  • Drive (Dave Kellett): The first emperor of La Familia uses this to explain how he thinks the Ring Drive works in a letter to his grandson.
  • In El Goonish Shive, an interdimensional creature communicates to Tedd that "in terms that [he] can comprehend [its kind] feed on excess magic energy in the environment". Its description leads Tedd to make the analogy of the creatures being like algae eaters but with magic but the creature informs him that they prefer to be compared to whales.

    Web Videos 
  • To Boldly Flee parodies the original twinkie analogy from Ghostbusters:
    Tease: His brain is still downloading vast amounts of information from somewhere.
    Sage: How much information?
    Block: [referring to the hot dog Sage is eating] Enough to make that wiener of yours twice the size of Chicago and three times the height of Mount Everest.
    Luke: Wow, you are hung!
    Snob: [walking into the room] How's Spoony holding up?
    Luke: Not good. Ask Sage about his wiener.
    Snob: ...No.

    Western Animation 
  • Futurama
    • Lampshaded in "Where No Fan Has Gone Before", when the Planet Express crew faces an Energy Being who is holding the cast of Star Trek: The Original Series hostage:
      Fry: Usually on Star Trek, they came up with a complicated plan and explained it with a simple analogy.
      Leela: Hmm, if we can re-route engine power through the primary weapons and configure them to Melllvar's frequency, that should overload his electro-quantum structure.
      Bender: Like putting too much air into a balloon!
      Fry: Of course! It's all so simple!
      Leela: It's not working! He's gaining strength from our weapons!
      Fry: Like a balloon and... something bad happens!
    • In another episode, Nibbler explains that Fry is resistant to psychic attacks because his brain lacks normal "Delta Waves", and had to adapt to function without it by "cobbling together" his other brain waves.
      Leela: Like a prom dress made out of carpet remnants!
      Nibbler: Yes, like your prom dress.
  • Extreme Ghostbusters made use of this. One episode followed up such an analogy with the Layman's Terms explanation "It's gonna blow up real good."
  • Star vs. the Forces of Evil: In "My New Wand!", Glossaryck tries to explain to Star how she can "dip down" and cast magic without her wand by comparing magic to a cauldron of stew and her wand to a spoon. Star promptly gets Sidetracked by the Analogy.
    Star: My wand isn't a spoon, it's a wand.
    Glossaryck: It's a metaphor, Star.
    Star: No, it's a wand.