Small words = big ideas

Explaining science is a tricky business. You have to use the right words to be accurate, and you have to assume that your audience may never have heard those words. Recently, I was invited by the nonprofit Science on Tap to talk about simplifying language for an audience at the Pub at Third Place in Seattle. I also will give a talk at the Seattle Aquarium on some of the same ideas.

Maybe you are a newcomer to the idea of the Up Goer language, created by Randall Munroe. But I’ve written about it before, and so you can get some background on that language and why scientists use it by reading an earlier post of mine about Hair-Having animals and a later discussion based on a talk at Town Hall.

What I’d like to share here are some links for exploration on your own of Up Goer, as well as other ways that people have used to try to simplify science communication.

Here is an especially wonderful comment from Chris Rowan’s article linked below:

“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.” But, as he says, that’s missing the point.  Rewriting in Up Goer can bring something “quite profound.”

Scientific American magazine article

Text editor to use upgoer yourself

Original cartoon about Saturn V rocket

Blog from Forum on Science Ethics and Policy that sponsors UW contest. This contains excerpts from some of the wonderful entries by contestants who described their research using Up Goer.

Different gizmo for simplifying text

Alternate text editor – By Theo Sanderson who created Upgoer5, Upgoer6

In Theo’s version Six, your text gets analyzed so that you can use more than the 1,000 most common words in English, but the words are sorted by color according to where they fall on the most-common to least-common continuum.


Social + citizen science meets my porch

The envelope arrived a few days ago. Happy to see that my data loggers from the North Carolina State project known as Your Wild Life arrived. They are tiny metal cylinders, but powerful in their own way. For those of you who don’t know much about citizen science, I’m a volunteer helping gather data for a lab run by Rob Dunn, a biologist and writer. I was lucky enough to meet Rob and hear a lecture from him during the NASW conference in 2012.

Meeting Rob and hearing him discuss the microbiomes of our homes made me sign up for one of his lab projects called “The Wild Life of our Homes.” Rob’s team is collecting data from about 1,000 houses across the United States. When I write “data” you should picture a giant Q-tip.

To help Rob’s project, I had to swipe this giant Q-tip across a few surfaces in my house. The microbes captured by these swabs will be analyzed in a laboratory in Colorado. (Wild Life has promised me photos of this lab.) Just to return to the data loggers – some of us who sampled our homes are gathering additional information on temperature and humidity. (That’s what the two loggers at my home will be doing.)

But my participation in Rob’s project is honestly just part of an evolving interest of mine in what some people call big data. For someone like myself, who writes mostly about medicine and health, big data might have seemed more the territory of computer scientists. But believe me, big data is a part of all of our health lives. Carl Zimmer has written eloquently about this in this story.

Collecting information on the thousands of microbes (and their genetic footprints) in my house may turn out – years from now – to yield some useful information about health. As you may know, there are already people studying the internal (gut) microbiomes of people for clues to how that data may be mined for useful patterns. One of these research groups is also using citizen volunteers – Ubiome.

You can follow both Wild Life and Ubiome on Twitter at @yourwild_life and @ubiome

In Seattle, I meet scientists who are working at this intersection all the time. The Institute for Systems Biology is just one example. ISB has held conferences about the microbiome for several years, and you can listen to archives from 2012 at that link.  On the campus of the University of Washington, there are dozens of people I know who use algorithms to analyze giant data sets related to human health. There is much more to come on all of this.

Pipettes in lab giveaway

There are people in Seattle who organized a lab-supply giveaway, no kidding, just for the sake of getting those beakers and pipettes to a better home.

One small gesture, on one January afternoon, but it is emblematic of Seattle science. My scientist friends tell me this is not universal. When I interviewed Lee Hartwell, before he retired from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he said, “this city is different.”

When I interviewed Clay Siegall from Seattle Genetics, he praised the science climate of Seattle. I’ve heard similar things from a dozen of the leaders in life sciences – that this region nourishes a culture (pardon the pun) where collaboration is prized.

I would never accuse Lee Hood, the founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, of lacking a competitive spirit. But he won the National Medal of Science recently from  President Barack Obama and Lee definitely has nourished a posse of colleagues and biotech spinoffs from his own work in systems biology.

Do you want other examples? What about the crowdfunding site – Microryza? They help scientists post “wish lists” for research funds.

What I hope to do at this blog is celebrate intersections and overlaps and shares and crowdfunding and seeding and inspiration. Some of that inspiration may come from patients themselves and not researchers.

When I was reporting a story on malaria research, a source told me that the U.S. Army granted some research money for human clinical trials here because “we are known for having a willing public” that will sign up for such trials.

I’ve met some of those patients, and I’ve met many many scientists. I hope to bring you more stories from this Seattle science zone.