Science is complicated, so people tune it out. This proud human tradition began around the time of the advent of science itself, and continues on today. However, gifted science writers can often distill complex theories and phenomena like quantum physics and global climate change into relatable verbiage. We’ve relied on them, as well as that rare scientist who's adept at communicating the research taking place in his field, to combat complexity and keep the public filled in.
For over a century now, this has worked reasonably well. But it might not for too much longer. First, newspapers and magazines are withering, and they’re slashing their science coverage. There will thus be fewer science journalists to keep the public abreast of what new research papers with titles like “Ectopic Pregnancy-Derived Human Trophoblastic Stem Cells Regenerate Dopaminergic Nigrostriatal Pathway to Treat Parkinsonian Rats” actually mean.
Second, the dominance of social media in our communicative lives is trashing everybody’s vocabularies and attention spans—we abbreviate, acronymize, slang it up, and dull it down. We have less time than ever to digest complex scientific ideas, what with all the anti-Obama screeds and funny pet clips and Huffington Post headlines we’ve got to scan through every day. Our understanding of science is liable to slip right out the window.
So desperate times call for desperate measures. Inspired by the renowned web comic xckd, Anne Jefferson and Chris Rowan started an ingenious blog called Ten Hundred Words of Science. The idea is to encourage researchers to explain their areas of expertise using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language. Which is a lot harder than you’d think.
To assist in the endeavor, they whipped up a text editor, called Up-Goer Five, that helps weed out any uncommon words. Scientists plug in their grafs, and the results are intriguing, to say the least: imagine an explanation of string theory that third graders can grasp. Some are overly simplistic to the point of pointlessness, others brilliantly bridge the gap between scientific obfuscation and ready-made mass consumption.
Here’s a handful of complex science concepts explained, by scientists, with super basic vocab:
“We know that everything is made of very little things, and those are made of even smaller things, and so on. It turns out that the smallest things act funny, as if they could talk to each other faster than light, or be in every place at the same time. They don’t act like anything we know in normal life, yet everything in normal life is made out of them. The harder you try to understand this, the more confused you will get.”
“I study small animals that live in clean water. I want to know where they live, so I look for them. I want to know their names. If they don’t have one, I give them one. I want to know what they do, so I watch them. I want to know their family, I want to know how they got to do what they do. I look deep back in time to do this. I want to know if they live in bad water too. Bad water for them means bad water for you.”
“When the ground shakes a lot it can kill many people. Ground shaking can also form very big waves of water which cover lots of the land, and kill more people. It is important to understand when and where this happens so that we can make people safer in years to come.
When the shaking happens the land can go up and down. Some places change from being high up before the shaking to being lower down after. Other places change from low down to higher up. We look for things that can tell us how and when the land has changed in the past and when waves have covered the land. To do this we look at tiny bits of rock and very small living things. We have found the biggest shaking and largest waves happened four times in the past 1000 years in the area we are working.”
Astronomy, Black Holes
“Where there are many stars together, over ten hundred hundred hundred hundred hundred stars, in the middle there is often a round thing that is all black and very heavy and the very smallest for all the stuff it holds. It is so small and so heavy —- many hundred hundred hundred stars heavy —- that stars and air-stuff close to it will move around it very quickly.
The fast moving air-stuff gets very hot and bright as it falls down toward the heavy black round thing in the middle. So hot that it takes computer eyes we send up into space to be able to see most of the light from this hottest, fast moving, air-stuff. Good thing that this happens very far away from us!
Most of the time, there is not enough air-stuff falling into one of these heavy black round things for us to see it in the middle of the many many stars around it, very far away. But sometimes the hot bright air-stuff can make over ten times more light than all those many many stars put together. This huge light show can last a hundred hundred hundred hundred years before the air-stuff runs low again. I am happy to get to study these amazing things as my job.”
-Norman Grogin, Space Telescope Science Institute
“Our home is changing because of some things we do, like burning stuff from the ground for power. One of the big changes is that we are warming up. What happens as we warm up is important! Some changes might be good: time for food growing may be longer. But lots of changes will be hard: where and how much or little rain we get, how hot and cold it gets, how much stuff is under water, how bad the air is to breathe, and a lot more things will all change. How we live, how we eat, and how we plan for things very much are tied to how things are around us. Big changes are hard to go through.
How Can We Know What Will Happen?
We can try to figure out what stuff might happen as we keep burning more and more stuff for power, and warm up. We can use computers to look forward. We can look at small changes from now and over the past couple hundred years, and think forward in time. We can even look way back into the very long ago past, at times when things warmed up or cooled down a lot, and learn from that!”
“I study the things made by people from the past. The things I look at are not made from paper, wood or rocks, but are made from what you get if you make some rocks hot, or what you get from a mine. I want to find out how the things were made, and how good the people were at getting the stuff from rocks or mines, and how good they were at putting different stuffs from different rocks or mines together.
The people I am interested in lived around four ten hundred years ago, in the Middle the sun arrives here. I look at the things very close up with a big looking thing and make pictures. I use the pictures to learn how the things were made. I also look at things from other places close to the place my things come from and try to find out if the people used the stuff the things are made from in ways not like the other people, and if they shared the stuff or things for money or for goods.”
There you have it. Whether or not the end product is consistently effective, it’s a great exercise for scientists, who are unfortunately going to have to become better communicators in the near future in order to help their research impact the public sphere. Commercial and governmental interests are liable to take advantage of the understanding gap as science journalism dims, and scientists will have to work harder to keep the public informed, especially when their research may be unpopular with dominant institutions (read: climatologists). In other words: more like this, please.