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.

 

Small words – Town Hall talk for Ignite Seattle

Some people in science like to use big words.

You know what I’m talking about. Climatology, prehistoric, proteomics. Or phrases that tie us up in knots.

I’m a fan of small ordinary words. Words that all of us use every day. The great cartoonist Randall Munroe of xkcd created a cartoon about labeling the parts of a Saturn V rocket – using only the most common 1,000 words in English. Hint: upgoer is the best way to describe a rocket if you can’t use the word rocket.

His colleague, Theo Sanderson, thought this idea was so much fun that he created a text editor gizmo where you can try it for yourself – and immediately get the red pen if you accidentally use the wrong word. About 180,000 people have already used the upgoer gizmo and many people post their creations to Twitter using the hashtag #upgoverfive.

Because I am a huge fan of this idea of distilling your science into ordinary words, I volunteered to give a public talk about upgoer at Seattle Town Hall as part of the Ignite Seattle nonprofit project.  The video of that talk is above.

That audience laughed a lot about the examples I gave from a competition. You can read more about that competition at my earlier blog post – “Hair Having animals.”

But here are some thoughtful stories about science writing:

Using metaphors:

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/life-unbounded/2013/07/09/in-defense-of-metaphors-in-science-writing/?print=true

Write like a human:
American Association for the Advancement of Science advice
A scientist makes fun of scientist writing