A few weeks back, Randall Munroe (of XKCD fame) attempted to explain the parts of a Saturn V rocket (“Up Goer Five”) using only the most common one thousand words of English. I like the idea, but found many of his phrasings awkward, and some were far harder to understand than if he’d used the usual word.

Now there’s a web-based editor that let’s everyone try their hand at this, and a tumblr of scientists trying to explain their work this way. Some of them are brilliant, but many almost unreadable. It turns out this is much harder than it looks.

Here’s mine. I cheated once, by introducing one new word that’s not on the list, although it’s not really cheating because the whole point of science education is to equip people the right words and concepts to talk about important stuff:

If the world gets hotter or colder, we call that ‘climate’ change. I study how people use computers to understand such change, and to help them decide what we should do about it. The computers they use are very big and fast, but they are hard to work with. My job is to help them check that the computers are working right, and that the answers they get from the computers make sense. I also study what other things people want to know about how the world will change as it gets hotter, and how we can make the answers to their questions easier to understand.

[Update] And here’s a few others that I think are brilliant:

Emily S. Cassidy, Environmental Scientist at University of Minnesota:

In 50 years the world will need to grow two times as much food as we grow today. Meeting these growing needs for food will be hard because we need to make sure meeting these needs doesn’t lead to cutting down more trees or hurting living things. In the past when we wanted more food we cut down a lot of trees, so we could use the land. So how are we going to grow more food without cutting down more trees? One answer to this problem is looking at how we use the food we grow today. People eat food, but food is also used to make animals and run cars. In fact, animals eat over one-third of the food we grow. In some places, animals eat over two-thirds of the food grown! If the world used all of the food we grow for people, instead of animals and cars, we could have 70% more food and that would be enough food for a lot of people!

Anthony Finkelstein, at University College London, explaining requirements analysis:

I am interested in computers and how we can get them to do what we want. Sometimes they do not do what we expect because we got something wrong. I would like to know this before we use the computer to do something important and before we spend too much time and money. Sometimes they do something wrong because we did not ask the people who will be using them what they wanted the computer to do. This is not as easy as it sounds! Often these people do not agree with each other and do not understand what it is possible for the computer to do. When we know what they want the computer to do we must write it down in a way that people building the computer can also understand it.

Notes for a high school student
What is Science Literacy?

Join the discussion: