18 January 2013

Use easy words

xkcd did a brilliant comic where he explained one of the most magnificent machines ever built by humans, the Saturn V rocket, using only the most common words in English.Of course, “rocket” is a rare word in English, so he rechristened it “up goer.”

Now, Theo Sanderson has done the scientific community a great service by creating a little editor that lets you see if you can write something using only the most common English words. And, of course, scientists are rising to the challenge, trying to describe their research in words anyone should know. Someone has started a Tumblr of scientists explaining their research this way.

It’s so good that I’ll forgive that it uses American English. (“Colour” is not allowed, but “color” is.)

Given that just yesterday I was talking about my science not being sophisticated, I didn’t find it a hard task:

I work with ten legged animals that are hard on the outside and that live in the water. I watch what they do, and sometimes I look at their brains to see how they do it.

Some of my animals are all girls, and don't need boys to make babies. They are interesting, and many people like to keep them in their homes, but they could be a problem if they are let go in the wrong place.

Some of my animals live in very very small rocks along the edge of the water, and go through it almost like it wasn't there. I check out where they live, how big they are, and what colour they are.

I am so using this in my next Biological Writing class.

P.S.—My bit on the Tumblr!

Additional, 19 January 2013: There’s another Tumblr, with this one devoted specifically to telling Ph.D. theses in the “UpGoer Five” style. I did my dissertation abstract here, because I though the first one I did wasa little too easy, as it was so general. I wanted to see how I did with a specific piece of technical writing.

Some animals that are hard on the outside and have ten legs have come up with a “new” means of getting around: they use their legs to go through very small rocks instead of walking around on the bottom like other ten legged animals. I looked at how three of these animals from two families get around. There are several things in how these three animals move that are almost the same in all three, suggesting that they know how to go through small rocks because they all got it from older animals in their family tree. The way their legs go around is much the same in all three animals: when you look at an animal from its side, leg 4 goes around one direction, and legs 2 and 3 go around in the other direction. In all three animals, the left and right legs take turns going forwards and back; the back end of the animal goes forward and back faster than the legs; and the timing of moving in a one given leg is much the same in two of the three animals. There are also things that make animals in the two families different. When two of the animals get around, the left and right legs take turns at the start, but then change to moving forward and back at the same time. In the third kind of animal, the left and right legs 2 and 3 take turns all the time, but the left and right legs 4 can still move together, and move faster than legs 2 and 3 (about as fast as the back end of the animal). There are also some things that almost but not quite the same in how these animals get around and how other animals walk, suggesting these two ways of getting around may have started the same way. The way the legs on one side of an animal move is almost the same whether an animal is moving through small rocks or walking, and the cells that control the end of the legs are almost the same in animals that move through small rocks and those that walk. Moving through small rocks and walking look different: the back end of the animals moves fast when it is going through small rocks but not walking, and that legs of animals moving through small rocks move in very few ways, while the legs of walking animals can move in many ways. The way legs 2 and 3 move when going through small rocks looks like the way walking legs move when an animal is walking back, but the way leg 4 moves when going through small rocks looks more like how walking legs move when an animal is walking forward. This suggests that moving through small rocks came from joining several different ways that animals move around (walking back in legs 2 and 3, forward walking in leg 4, and flipping the back end very fast).

It takes a while, but I have to say, I don’t find it very hard to convert most of my work. And you can see the benefit of a little jargon: you can say more in fewer words.

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