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Science in Ten-Hundred Words: The “Up-Goer 5″ Challenge

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A central question of communicating science to a wider audience often boils down to this: can you take a complex scientific topic and explain it in a way that someone unfamiliar with the field can understand? The commonly-cited techniques for meeting this challenge, such as cutting out jargon and using relatable analogies, sound easy in principle but are often quite tough in practice.

Perhaps that is why the Up-Goer Five text editor, created by geneticist Theo Sanderson, has struck such a cord with many scientists, including me and my co-blogger Anne Jefferson. Inspired by a brilliant xckd comic that took the elimination of jargon to an almost absurd degree by attempting to describe the blueprints of the Saturn V moon rocket using only a list of the most thousand commonly used English words (hence, Up Goer Five – “the only flying space car that has taken anyone to another world”), the text editor compares anything that you type into it against that same list and gently chides you when you use a word that isn’t on it.

Anne and I were not the first scientists to discover the Up-Goer Five editor, but when we blogged about our attempts to describe urban hydrology (without ‘stream’ or ‘river’), and paleomagnetism (without ‘magnet’), and challenged other scientists to try their hand at describing what they do in Up-Goer Five-speak, we were inundated with responses – so many that to record them all for posterity, and to allow future entries to be more easily collected, we set up a dedicated Tumblr blog called ‘Ten Hundred Words of Science‘ to showcase them all.

In just over a week, it has accumulated almost three hundred entries, with subjects ranging from string theory (“the different kinds of bits we see come from just one kind of wrapped long thing moving in different ways”) to cognitive science (“I study what it is about human minds that allows us to speak to each other”), via volcanology (“Tiny pieces of fire rock from inside the world can fly through the air”), plate tectonics (“Even though the ground under your feet feels very still, it is actually moving really, really slowly”), nanotechnology (“If you take a big thing and make it small, it does something different than what you’d expect”) and everything else in between.

Some might not see this as anything more than a gimmick, and argue that the constraints you are forced to work under are too severe; that by replacing jargon with a dense thicket of ‘simple’ words, you are just replacing one sort of linguistic complexity with another. That certainly can happen, but only if you miss the point of the exercise.

What the vast majority of the submissions we’ve read in the past week clearly show is that if you seek to move beyond the straight replacement of forbidden words and seek to recast the concept you’re trying to explain, then something quite profound can result. Here for example, is Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, distilled down to its essence by Richard Carter:

all the animals and green things we see in the world…have all been made by the same, fixed, easy steps acting all around us. These easy steps, taken in the largest sense, being growing and having babies; being like your parents (but not exactly like them); and being able to avoid dying for as long as possible.

If the unifying theorem of all biology can be so vividly described despite the limitations being imposed by the Up-Goer 5 list, then I think we can find it within all of us to do the same with our own research. I certainly feel that my own attempt to recast the magnetic signals I study as memories of past locations stored within the rocks, that they can give us if we ask them in the right way, did give me some insight into explaining what I do. As Anne remarked:

In many ways, I think telling people that you study little green things that lived more than “10 hundred times 10 hundred years ago” gives more of a sense of the enormity of geologic time in a palpable way than saying that you study organisms that lived more than a million years ago…

…I think this is a great vehicle for getting us to be thoughtful about the way we explain our work to each other and to non-scientists. It definitely takes more thought to distill a complex topic down to a jargon-free explanation of the core principles and why they are exciting. And sometimes it takes more words. But, in the end, if it helps people to understand what science is all about, then that effort and those carefully chosen words are totally worthwhile.

As such, we hope that people continue to take the challenge, and submit them to Ten Hundred Words of Science. Because you’re not just explaining something to other people – you’re also explaining it to yourself.

‘And if you want a slightly less stringent vocabulary to work with, then Theo Sanderson has now come up with Up-Goer Six, an editor that colour codes your words based on their frequency of usage, rather than rejecting them outright.’

Chris Rowan About the Author: Chris Rowan is a geologist specialising in tectonics, the deformation of continents, and paleomagnetism. He is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Geology at Kent State University. He blogs at Highly Allochthonous. Follow on Twitter @Allochthonous.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. leecrocker 6:40 pm 01/27/2013

    I understand the attraction of the challenge, but shouldn’t it be obvious to anyone with even the most basic understanding of language and neuroscience that if the goal is to simplify explanations, limiting vocabulary is exactly the wrong thing to do. This is a challenge precisely because our brains learn complex things by combining concepts into new words. To best way to simplify complex subjects is often to make new vocabulary–but carefully and skillfully.

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  2. 2. Fretka 8:32 pm 01/27/2013

    After reading this article many thoughts come to mind, but primarily “if this is indicative of the average level of comprehension………..we are doomed as a species”.

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  3. 3. engineer238 9:58 pm 01/27/2013

    I think this is a “cute” challenge for scientist and a good exercise; however, it is not at all helpful in explaining science to non-scientist. It is unreasonable to restrict ourselves to only one thousands words in an attempt to explain something. Such explanations would make little sense to a scientist much less an ordinary person. In fact you may confuse a non-scientist even more than they already are. As scientists, one of the main fallacies we make in explaining our work is mis-judging our audience. It is often difficult to determine how much background knowledge someone has in our fields and as a result scientists, myself included, have a tendency to either severely under or overestimate our audiences understanding. This leads to either “talking over the audiences’ head” or insulting their intelligence. I have found that what it really takes to explain our research to anyone is patience, understanding, and awareness.

    When explaining your research to a non-scientist or even a fellow scientist you need to be patient. This individual or group may not have the same background and years of training as you, so you might have to explain vocabulary, or in some cases eliminate jargon completely. It may take awhile for you to explain your subject, but enthusiasm and a well laid foundation of respect for your audience can help keep both you and them focused and attentive.

    Throughout your conversation or talk you must also be understanding of the audiences’ knowledge base or lack of knowledge base. This is about attitude. If you walk into a conversation thinking “gosh these fools are stupid” the audience will pick up on that and will not be receptive to anything you have to say. You also cannot enter the conversation thinking that everyone in the audience, whether it be one person or hundreds, is an expert. If you do this then you can easily talk over their heads and the only thing they will glean from your talk is that you are an arrogant jerk. The only exception to this rule of thumb is if you know ahead of time that your audience is full of experts on the subject matter (i.e. know your audience). Remember if the opportunity presents itself and it is appropriate for the situation, it is okay to interact with your audience in a way that allows you to assess their knowledge of the subject.

    Regardless of who your audience is, you must be aware of them during your talk. Even if you audience isn’t communicating with you orally they are continuously giving you feed back with ever word you say. This feedback is behavioral. They may be fidgeting, indicating they may be bored. They may have a look of confusion, indicating that something you said didn’t make sense or they are trying to understand. They may even look angry if they find your message of speaking style insulting. Sometimes it is difficult to pick up on these cues because we are so interested and self-involved in explaining our science that we ignore them. But these cues will let us know much of what we need to know about the level of comprehension of the audience, and their state of mind. With this knowledge we can either increase or decrease the sophistication of our language accordingly; as well as determine what level of detail the audience is interested in learning.

    These three simple skills help you know and interact respectfully with your audience, a key point of public speaking. To explain your work well you need to be a good speaker. These skills are not something that you necessarily have to be born with, but they are something that anyone can acquire with practice. For a young scientist still in training; whether a undergraduate or graduate, the best education you can receive for explaining complicated subjects to a non-technical audience is public speaking. A combination practice and formal study with a class will help tremendously. While a class will not likely make you an expert, it will help to identify problem areas, so that when presenting to others, be it one-on-one or a seminar, you consciously avoid old mistakes and habits. The only thing after a class is to get out there are practice, be bold and talk to others but learn from each conversation.

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  4. 4. chadaj 11:25 pm 01/27/2013

    Here’s my attempt:

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  5. 5. Patentese 9:30 am 01/28/2013

    I think we can all agree that limiting your vocabulary isn’t necessarily the best way to communicate your point, but the excercise forces you to be creative and to think about your complicated scientific idea from new perspectives, and therein lies both the appeal and value!

    We’ve had some fun re-writing apple’s patent claims up-goer five style!

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