Good science communication is hard. This handy guide from SMBC Comics helps distinguish the good from the bad.
Jargon (that is, specialised or technical language) is a common problem in poor science communication. Randall Munroe, of xkcd and what if?, took the idea of cutting out jargon to the extreme. (If you haven’t checked out either xkcd and what if?, go do it now. I’ll wait.)
Munroe’s book, Thing Explainer, uses only drawings and a vocabulary of the 1,000 (or “ten hundred”) most common words to explain complicated idea such as: “computer buildings (datacenters), the flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates), the things you use to steer a plane (airliner cockpit controls), and the little bags of water you’re made of (cells)”.
This sparked a movement amongst scientists and non-scientists to explain ideas using the most common ten hundred words. This Tumblr blog collected around 300 entries in the first week. The twitter hashtag is #UpGoerFive. Read the explanatory article in the Scientific American to find out why. To help determine whether the words you pick are in the ten hundred most used words, check out the Up-Goer Five Text Editor.
Explaining my research with the ten hundred most used words
I thought I’d take the challenge, and explain my group’s mathematical research in energy-efficient train operations without, it turns out, using the words ‘energy’, ‘speed’, ‘mathematics’, ‘train driver’, ‘destination’. See if you can find their replacement words below.
It takes a lot of train-food to move a train, but less food for each person on the train than in cars or on buses. If we can work out how to use less train-food, we can help our world live longer.
A train-driving person can drive the train in four ways: full power (train goes faster), some power (train goes no faster and no slower), no power (train slows down), or counter-power (train slows down fast).
If we can tell the train-driving person when to change between the four driving ways, we can lower the train-food needed to get to each stop on time. In real life we can save ten to twenty parts in one hundred bits of train-food.
Our team uses numbers, letters and other strange marks to work out the least train-food needed to move a train to each stop on time. We show this to the train-driving person with a computer picture. The picture might change if the train-driving person is not doing what we told them, and so the train is going faster or slower than it should.
We also study how the train should be driven if there are very high or low parts on the track, how more than one train should be driven, and how to decide the best time that each train should be at each stop to use least total train-food.
I’m not sure if this makes our research any clearer (!), but I had to work quite hard to carefully choose my words, and that was the whole point of the exercise.
Will you take the challenge? Explain: what you do, your teaching philosophy, your research, a book or movie, a mathematical concept — anything, really — and share it in the comments below.