This is a guest post by Nathan Sanders, a PhD student at Harvard University and a writer at Astrobites.
Sometimes it seems like scientists and the general public just don’t speak the same language. This may seem obvious to any science writer—some readers of this blog may even use the word “translation” to describe their role as intermediaries between modern research and the mainstream. This language barrier is just as apparent, and a real problem, to every researcher-in-training who picks up a scientific journal article in their own field for the first time.
But what hasn’t always been obvious to me, and what I’ve spent a lot of time considering over the past few years, is why this disconnect exists, and if it’s even necessary. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is inevitable, but we can do much to alleviate its consequences and help young scientists realize their potential as researchers sooner.
The Madness Born from the Scientific Method
To guide you through my thinking, let me describe a recent discovery that my research group colleagues and I made. A star exploded in a galaxy not so distant from our own and our telescope just happened to point at that galaxy right after it happened. As the evidence of this stellar catastrophe—a supernova—waited patiently in the images on our hard disks, the explosion steadily grew in brightness.
The supernova became twice as bright, then four times as bright, then ten times as bright as it was when we first imaged it. At this point, a week later, it was as bright as any explosion we’ve ever seen from a massive star. This is the point—peak brightness—when supernovae are usually discovered, and indeed another group found it in their own images from this period. A third group performed optical spectroscopy on the supernova and determined that it was of a rare type, thought to be produced from the death of a massive star which gives way to a black hole.
But what makes this supernova truly remarkable, different from almost any of the thousands of others that astronomers have observed over the past century, is that it kept getting brighter. It doubled in brightness again, and then doubled again!
That’s not how I described the discovery to my colleagues in astronomy though. As guilty as any scientist of requiring translation, this is what I wrote in the abstract of our paper:
“We report on our serendipitous pre-discovery detection and detailed follow-up of the broad-lined Type Ic supernova (SN) 2010ay at z = 0.067 imaged by the Pan-STARRS1 3Π survey just ~4 days after explosion. The SN had a peak luminosity, MR~ -20.2 mag, significantly more luminous than known GRB-SNe and one of the most luminous SNe Ib/c ever discovered.”
Justifying Scientific Prose
This text really is equivalent to the way I described the discovery earlier, I promise! Let’s walk through the published text of the text step by step.
“Serendipitous pre-discovery detection” is our way of saying that we got lucky when our telescope, Pan-STARRS, happened to catch the supernova. The formula “z = 0.067” signals an object in the relatively nearby universe, with cosmic expansion carrying the galaxy away from us at a relatively slow speed with a Doppler redshift (z) of only 6.7%.. This is equivalent to saying the supernova is a mere one billion light years distant. MR~ -20.2 magnitudes is astronomical parlance for really, really bright—about seven billion times as bright as the sun, although very far away!
Why is any of this important? This isn’t stated explicitly in this part of the abstract, but a seasoned supernova observer will read between the lines.
This new supernova offers a clue to the physics behind stellar explosions. “Broad-lined Type Ic” supernovae are the ones I referred to that are thought to accompany the production of black holes. The model predicts that the explosion should also spit out a stream of particles at nearly the speed of light, yielding a gamma-ray burst (GRB). This supernova, SN 2010ay, seems like a shining example of this model, except that it didn’t produce a GRB. That tells us there’s something left to be tweaked in our physical model.
This is just two sentences from a single paper—you could walk through any scientific publication in this way, breaking down the meaning of each seemingly-obtuse phrase. In some fields, the language is much more far removed from everyday English than this example!
To make this text accessible you need to do much more than just remove the jargon, replacing unfamiliar terms like “redshift” with everyday words like “distance.” In fact, I wouldn’t be comfortable doing only that, because these two words do not have identical meanings—and this replacement could in fact be misleading if the context was different.
A proper “translation” goes beyond jargon replacement, or even providing detailed definitions of these terms like a glossary or encyclopedia might. It must draw on the history of research in the field and the methodology used by the researchers to provide context for the work being done. Without this, it would be completely unclear why imaging “just ~4 days after explosion” makes this a lucky break or why “broad-lined Type Ic supernovae” are any more special than any other type.
It would be fair to ask why scientists do write in this language, why we don’t just communicate in terms that can be understood without having spent years doing research in the field. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying that all scientists are great writers, I think our profession’s reasoning for using this language really is sound, and in fact it’s no different from the way we communicate other concepts in life.
Using specialized terminology is simply more efficient—you can communicate very specific ideas in much more compact prose than a layman’s explanation would require. That’s demonstrated by this very piece, of course, in which I spent two paragraphs translating two sentences of academic text.
"Translation” has an audience
I realize that nearly 100% of society will get along happily without someone to translate the abstract of my paper for them. For more Earth-shattering discoveries, it is certainly beneficial to society for mass audiences to have access to scientific information, and there are countless fantastic science writers (many of them featured on this blog!) doing just that. But there is a particular demographic who really does need this service to be applied more broadly, and maybe even for a paper like mine.
I know that there are people who are in desperate need of translations of peer-reviewed journal articles because I was one of them just a few years ago. As a freshman undergraduate just being exposed to scientific research for the first time, I felt as though I had hit a brick wall when I picked up my first research paper.
You may have felt much the same way when you were reading the excerpt about the supernova. If you were scanning carefully to understand it’s meaning, and you aren’t already an astrophysicist, you may have found yourself rereading phrase after phrase, trying to parse the meaning of the jargon, like I did countless times. Worse, if you were like me, you probably finished the excerpt with no recognition of why the information you just read is relevant to research in astronomy or why it should excite you.
Despite the benefit of fantastic mentors, I struggled with material like this for years as an undergraduate. Even though I understand the motivation for and support the use of this language now, it served as a barrier to entry for me not long ago, and it delayed my progress as a researcher. I’m certain that with translations like the one I provided above, I would have developed skills faster.
In my next post for The SA Incubator, I will describe a sort of translation service, or reader’s digest, that we’ve established in the field of astrophysics. This service is called Astrobites, and sister sites in other fields, like Chembites, are springing up, as well. If you slogged through the learning curve for understanding research in your field and would like to help others along, look out for my next post and consider starting a -bites site in your field.