I recently had the opportunity to take part in a workshop for researchers about communicating science to the public. At one point the speaker suggested that the first step for anyone would be to learn how to translate scientific concepts so that a child would be able to understand them. When one of the researchers asked how you should then go about scaling up to older audiences, the speaker laughed and delivered a punchline: “You don’t.”

On my way back to the office I found myself stuck on the idea that most of us could have maxed out our understanding of science somewhere in our childhoods. Surely this couldn’t be true. Curious, I was naturally inclined to conduct a simple (and decidedly unscientific) survey. I chose the most extreme case that I could think of for an older “public” audience: people with PhDs in science. If this group did not have at least a basic knowledge outside of their own disciplines, who would?

Luckily my job provides easy access to an ample pool of people who were willing to give up their lunch break in the interest of curiosity. They agreed to total honesty in exchange for changing their names. Our group included:

  • Lee the Biochemist
  • Cat the Civil Engineer
  • Molly the Molecular Biologist
  • Phil the Physicist
  • David the Evolutionary Biologist
  • Taylor the Geologist

I presented each person with the following question:

What is something that a second-semester college student (~19 years old) in your field should be able to easily explain in under 50 words?

I compiled the questions, we grabbed our lunches, and then we each did our best to answer the questions from the rest of the group. (If you want to see how you would have done, the questions are in bold below. Give it a shot before looking at the answers at the end of the post.) There were some surprising trends overall from our little group, but first: a dramatic re-telling of the highlights:

1. Why is it unscientific to talk about different human "races"? (Question from the Evolutionary Biologist)

Geologist: I had no idea on this one. I guessed it had something to do with us not being able to distinguish between races by looking at genes.

Evolutionary Biologist: That is certainly not right.

Biochemist: That is probably the opposite of right.

Civil Engineer: I had the same thing, so I am going to give myself a big 0/5 on that one.

Physicist: I at least knew it had to do with a common lineage, right?

Evolutionary Biologist: It is more about how much we travel and mix when breeding.

Geologist: Nope, I don’t think I ever learned that one.

Civil Engineer: Me neither.

2. Why does carbon exhibit different properties in its allotropes graphite and diamond? Simply phrased: "Graphite and diamond are two different forms of carbon, why does graphite write on paper, while diamond will rip paper and scratch glass?" (Question from the Physicist)

Civil Engineer: I knew this one!

Geologist: Me too!

Molecular Biologist: I thought it had to do with the density and carbons being more tightly packed.

Biochemist: Me too. I had “due to the condensed form.”

Evolutionary Biologist: I had that graphite is in 2D and diamond is a 3D grid.

Physicist: Pretty good all around! It is actually the difference in the arrangement of the carbon atoms. 2D sheets that are held together by weak electrostatic forces.

Civil Engineer: Woohoo! 5/5!

Biochemist: Are you seriously grading yourself?

Civil Engineer: What? Aren’t you?

The discussion featured a fair number of heavy swings between pride/excitement at remembering something or frustration at letting little details trip us up.

3. Imagine a cube of polished steel and a cube of rough-cut wood with exactly the same size (volume). The blocks are put at the same height on a wooden ramp, and the ramp is slowly raised to keep getting steeper and steeper. Which block, the wood or steel, will start sliding down the ramp first? Why? (Question from the Civil Engineer)

Biochemist: Of course you would ask this!

Civil Engineer: What? First you don’t like my grading and now my question? What is wrong with it?

Biochemist: Nothing, I just was trying so hard to remember my last physics class. It was giving me flashbacks.

Evolutionary Biologist: I had a hard time, because I knew the answer had to be so simple. I said that the steel would go first, because there would be less friction.

Geologist: Me too. There is a lower coefficient of friction.

Biochemist: Oh no! I had friction and crossed it out!

Civil Engineer: No 5/5 for you!

Biochemist: Oh shut up.

Molecular Biologist: I said less friction and heavier, so the steel would be first.

Civil Engineer: Actually the mass is irrelevant. It is just the coefficient of friction.

Molecular Biologist: Darn it!

4. Why do your mitochondria only have DNA from your mother? (Question from the Molecular Biologist)

Civil Engineer: I knew I was going to get a 0/5 on this one, so I drew a cell and labelled mitochondria.

Biochemist: Were you hoping for partial credit?

Civil Engineer: Look! You have a drawing for one of your questions too! You did the same thing!

Biochemist: Don’t look at my paper!

Molecular Biologist: Did anyone answer it?

Geologist: I feel like I had no idea. I just thought that it had to be a sperm/egg thing, so I said that mitochondria is only in eggs? Maybe?

Physicist: Similar approach. I said that mitochondria don’t come from the fertilization process.

Evolutionary Biologist: There are definitely mitochondria in sperm, but I said that they break down when it combines with the egg.

Biochemist: Similar. I said that it comes only from the egg.

Molecular Biologist: Actually, mitochondria are only in the tail of the sperm, which does not go into the egg. You were kind of right.

Geologist: Why is it in the tail?

Molecular Biologist: Because mitochondria create energy, and the tail needs to move.

Physicist: Whoa! I did not know that.

Geologist: Me neither.

Civil Engineer: I at least remembered that mitochondria create energy, but I had a biology class in college.

Geologist: Yeah, my last biology class was when I was 13.

Sometimes reverting to our earlier student selves, people became protective of their answers.

5. What is a protein? (Question from the Biochemist)

Geologist: I just rewrote the definition of a mineral with “organic molecules.”

Physicist: Same. I said “molecule used in biological processes that is organic and functional.”

Civil Engineer: I actually remembered that it is a bunch of amino acids.

Biochemist: Not too bad. It is a macromolecule of amino acid residues.

Molecular Biologist: Got it!

Evolutionary Biologist: 5/5!

Biochemist: Oh don’t you start with that now!

6. Which type of plate boundaries are capable of producing the largest earthquakes and why – convergent, divergent, or strike-slip? (Question from the Geologist)

Biochemist: I said convergent, but I had no real reason. Just seems like they are going against each other.

Civil Engineer: You have more than that. See! You did draw a diagram!

Molecular Biologist: I said divergent, because they have forces that oppose each other?

Civil Engineer: Convergent, because they exert the largest forces.

Physicist: Strike-slip, because they can release energy faster?

Evolutionary Biologist: I said strike-slip because the faults can be longer.

Geologist: Wow, so we are all over the map on this one.

Civil Engineer: Really? Map jokes?

Geologist: I thought it was funny. It does have to do with the largest potential surface area capable of accumulating elastic strain. The answer is convergent.

Physicist: Why are they different?

Geologist: The plates intersect at the shallowest angle, so the greatest area can be deep enough not to just slide past each other but not so deep as to melt.

Biochemist: I have actually never had an Earth science class, ever.

Molecular Biologist: I was 13.

Physicist: I certainly never learned about that.

Civil Engineer: I had a course in college.

Besides getting some behavioral flashbacks into the students we once were, what did we actually learn from this exercise?

Overall there was a general sense of surprise with how difficult the questions seemed from outside of our own disciplines. We all came in feeling like we had probably made our own questions too easy, but in the end we found ourselves having a hard time with some of the others.

That being said, even in the areas where we had almost no background most of us could use basic logic to figure out the framework of the answer. If mitochondria were only from the mother, we could reason that it probably had to do something with the sperm/egg and fertilization process. Even though people weren’t certain which type of plate margins resulted in the greatest forces, there was an all-around understanding that the one capable of producing the largest release of energy would have the largest earthquakes.

Realizing that a lack of vocabulary is not the same as a lack of ability opens many doors across audiences for interesting and important scientific concepts.

In fact, feeling like we had “no idea” was more an expression of frustration at our perceived limitations than an actual complete lack of understanding. More often than not, 1-2 sentences of background and vocabulary were more than enough to bring us up to speed.

It’s true that in many cases we lacked the vocabulary to answer the questions fully, but when we explained the thought processes behind our answers most of us were in the right ballpark. We were mistaking a lack of vocabulary about a process as a lack of understanding of the process itself.

And, yes, some of our collective success was the result of being willing to sit there and really think about questions that we might not have a complete background for. In the end, the framework many of us fell back on for the logic behind our answers came from classes or experiences extending back through middle school.

Returning to the original sentiment from the science communication workshop – that communicating science to adults is the same as communicating it to younger audiences – it now starts to take on a different meaning. Rather than being a pure criticism of the lack of understanding of basic science concepts in adults – even ones with PhDs – it could also be an argument against underestimating the ability of your younger audiences to learn new and complex concepts. Most of the logical leaps we had made could have certainly been made by a middle schooler.

We were reaching back to early biology classes and our first experiments in physics from more than a decade ago. In other cases, we were reaching back to conversations we had with our parents (Biochemist and Molecular Biologist) or impromptu home experiments with rubber bands or screwdrivers (Physicist and Geologist). Even those of us who never talked about science at home or had a mechanically inclined parent had vivid memories of library trips and nature programs from TV (Civil Engineer and Evolutionary Biologist).

Of our extremely varied backgrounds and childhoods, we all shared two things: an insatiable sense of curiosity and a desire learn more about things that we don’t yet understand.

Thankfully, neither of those qualities have a required minimum age.

Full answers:

1. People in different countries can look very different, and this is of course largely genetic. But nevertheless we’re a single gene pool: all Homo sapiens sapiens - a very young subspecies (200,000 years old) that has always liked to travel. Not just on foot, but for at least 50,000 years – and probably much longer – by boat. And as a group, we’re sexually promiscuous, constantly mixing our genes.

2. In graphite the carbon atoms are arranged in 2D sheets, with all of the bonds between carbon atoms occurring within the sheet; the sheets are stacked on top of each other, with weak electrostatic forces joining them together. In diamond there is a 3D network of carbon atoms bonded to each other, which is very rigid. With graphite you can write on paper by friction breaking the inter-sheet weak bonding, depositing sheets of graphite on the paper.

3. It depends on the friction between the objects and the ramp. The material with the smaller coefficient of friction with the ramp will slide first. The mass of the object does not matter since the force pushing the blocks down the ramp and the friction force resisting it are both proportional to the mass.

4. Mitochondria are small structures inside your cells that produce energy. A sperm has a head with all the genetic material from the father inside and a tail to propel itself forward. The tail needs energy to wiggle so it is packed with mitochondria, but these are not found in the head. When the sperm docks onto the egg the head enters but the tail is shed and remains outside. Therefore no mitochondria from the father are transferred to the fertilized egg and the mitochondria that you have are all from your mother, which came in the egg.

5. Proteins are macromolecules made of amino acid residues. They are essential parts of organisms and participate in virtually every process within cells, including catalyzing metabolic reactions, serving as structural elements (collagen, keratin), transport and communication within and outside cells (haemoglobin, antibodies).

6. Earthquake intensity depends heavily on the surface area of a rupture which has built up strain elastically: deep enough to not simply slide and shallow enough not to be heated to the point of deforming plastically. Therefore convergent margins, which have the shallowest interface angle, can potentially have the largest surface area within this zone.