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:

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

China virus and Washington science


Seattle and Pullman may seem far from the front lines in the battle against the emerging virus known as H7N9 in China.

But scientists in both Northwest cities are watching carefully and working hard to help in whatever global effort is mounted against this new virus, which has passed from birds to humans. At the time of this post, about 131 people had been infected – and those were confirmed by lab reports. Thirty-nine had died.

Below is a partial list of some of the Washington scientists and labs who have a connection to the global work. Some of them are following with interest because they work on flu viruses or vaccines, and others because they work in surveillance of animals. Birds are a reservoir for many flu viruses.

In following this story, with so many daily twists and turns, it is great to have a “how-to” guide, and Maryn McKenna created just that for Wired magazine. McKenna wrote the book, “Superbug” and has great advice. On May 9th, one of the nation’s leading epidemiologists, Michael Osterholm, argued in an opinion piece in the New York Times  that we should pay very close attention to this latest flu virus, as well as an emerging virus in the Middle East – known as a coronavirus.

“Some seem to think that public health officials pull a microbe “crisis du jour” out of their proverbial test tube when financing for infectious disease research and control programs appears to be drying up. They dismiss warnings about the latest bugs as “crying wolf.” This misimpression could be deadly,” he wrote.

Here are some of our Northwest virus investigators:

Katze Laboratory – University of Washington

Paul Allen School for Global and Animal Health – Washington State University

PATH – Seattle nonprofit, Scientist Kathy Neuzil

Infectious Disease Research Insitute (IDRI)

Working on vaccine against H5N1, but following H7N9 closely

Seattle Biomed, Alan Diercks and others

Collaborating with St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis, studying

human immune response to H7N9










Health Care of the Future: Entrepreneurs find gold as they mine health care data

Read the full article in the Puget Sound Business Journal, Feb. 1, 2013.

A small but significant strand of the future of health care winds through Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

There, a 6-year-old company called Socrata helps run the federal government’s data portal, called, with Medicare and other health-related agencies a big part of the mix.