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Can You Explain Science Using Only 1,000 Common Words?

The Up-Goer Five Challenge forces researchers to peel back the jargon and reveal the simple nuggets of their work.

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Even scientists themselves sometimes get tired of explaining their work in polysyllabic jargon, which probably explains why so many of them sign up for a special challenge at AGU’s Fall Meeting each year.

The Up-Goer Five Challenge, inspired by an xkcd comic, asks scientists to explain their research using only the 1,000—or, as the comic puts it, “ten hundred”—most commonly used English words. Challengers can use a list or the handy Up-Goer Five Text Editor.

In the original comic, creator Randall Munroe used simple words to label parts of the Saturn V rocket—or, as he called it, the Up Goer Five—and demonstrated how explaining complex ideas in this way can produce fun results and boil scientific ideas down to the basics. This challenge can help scientists think about how best to present their work to the public by forcing them to pare their research down to a few salient points. Here are excerpts from some of the 30 abstracts submitted for the Up-Goer Challenge at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2018.

The Saturn V comic that launched the Up-Goer Five Challenge.
A cutout of the original Up-Goer Five comic that launched the Up-Goer Five Challenge. It shows a schematic of the Saturn V rocket labeled using only the 1,000 English words people use most often. Credit: xkcd.com

There’s Plenty More Fish in the Big Deep Water

Some scientists, like Martin Heesemann and his colleagues, take the Up-Goer Five Challenge as an opportunity to have some fun, but they still manage to communicate their fascinating underwater discoveries.

“The big deep water is very cool; both actually and in second meaning. There are lots of animals that live there, such as weird ass things that live on smoking rock build ups. We wonder why they have little guys in their bodies instead of their own insides, which is really weird and doesn’t happen where we live. They wonder why the guys in hard clothes don’t get pressed flat and if they are jerks to the weird ass things, because why else would they be there at the smoking rocks?”

Where There’s Crazy Fire, There’s Smoke

Megan Johnson and Fernando Garcia Menendez managed to use simple and clear language while maintaining the serious tone necessary to talk about wildfires and estimating the health impacts they have. They also presented an academic paper on the research at the meeting.

“Smoke from crazy fires, or fires that are not planned, makes the air not clean. Smoke can make people sick—especially those that are young, old, or already sick—or even cause them to die early. However, it can be hard to try to put a number on how much crazy fires make the air not clean and how that air can change people’s well-being. There are many different ways to guess those numbers and each way doesn’t always give you the same answer.”

A Hard Thing on Finger Rings in the Rough

Catherine McCammon and colleagues wanted to describe the science and the multidisciplinary group behind it that got overlooked when news stories zeroed in on the words “diamonds” and “quadrillion tons.” Their research tries to answer the question of why sound waves travel faster at the base of old continents, a project developed by young scientists as part of the National Science Foundation–funded Cooperative Institute for Dynamic Earth Research program. The researchers embraced the Up-Goer Five Challenge to explain how “a great group that got money from another great group” uses “the hard thing on finger rings” to study the interior of Earth.

“What is our world made of? We can’t take pieces of it home to study because it’s too deep, but we can do something almost as good. When our world shakes, it makes waves and they go through the inside of our world, sometimes all the way to the other side. We can find out what stuff the waves go through by pressing the same stuff at home and making it hot, and also by studying imagine stuff inside thinking boxes.”

Let It White Ice-Rain Fall

You might think weather­—the subject of small talk everywhere—would be easy to simplify, but it’s a bit tricky when you can’t use words like “snow,” “clouds,” or even “weather.” Katerina Gonzales and her colleagues found ways to creatively communicate these ideas to discuss the warming of atmospheric rivers—long, narrow sections of atmosphere that transport a lot of moisture—and why that matters to the U.S. West Coast.

“When a sky long water thing crosses to land, high land places can force air water up, which makes rain or white ice-rain fall. If the long sky water things are warm, it rains water. If they are cold, there is white ice-rain instead. White ice-rain is good because in the cold time of year it stores up water for the left side states people to use later in the warm and dry time of the year. Here we see if sky long water things are already warming up in the left side states.”

Check out the full abstracts and other examples, or try using the Up-Goer Five Text Editor yourself. The challenge is sure to make you more aware of the words we take for granted every day.

—Bailey Bedford ([email protected]; @BBedfordScience), Science Communication Program Graduate Student, University of California, Santa Cruz

Citation: Bedford, B. (2019), Can you explain science using only 1,000 common words?, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO113067. Published on 03 January 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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