It’s the beginning a new semester, and Chris and I have both been spending a lot of time thinking about how to distill our scientific specialties down to the appropriate level for undergraduate geology students. Starting the semester with a board filled with fluid mechanics equations is probably not the right way for me to convince my students that urban hydrology is an important and exciting discipline and worthy of their time and attention. But my audience as a scientist and professor is far more than those 28 majors sitting in a classroom; I want to be able to convince anyone and everyone that the way water moves through cities is an important topic. So I was intellectually primed for the challenge that floated past my Twitter screen yesterday afternoon.
Inspired by Randall Munroe’s amazing description of a rocketship on XKCD using only the 1000 (10 hundred) most common words in English, someone else coded a text editor that challenges you to describe a complex topic using only the 1000 word list. If you use a word not on the approved list, it tells you you’ve gone wrong “Uh oh! You’ve used a non-permitted word” and what it is. (For example, DESCRIBE, COMPLEX, TOPIC, LIST, APPROVED, LIST, UH, NON, PERMITTED are all non-permitted words the editor flags.) So I decided to see if I could explain urban hydrology and why I study it using only the words in the list. Here’s what I came up with:
I study how water moves in cities and other places. Water is under the ground and on top of it, and when we build things we change where it can go and how fast it gets there. This can lead to problems like wet and broken roads and houses. Our roads, houses, and animals, can also add bad things to the water. My job is to figure out what we have done to the water and how to help make it better. I also help people learn how to care about water and land. This might seem like a sad job, because often the water is very bad and we are not going to make things perfect, but I like knowing that I’m helping make things better.
Science, teach, observe, measure, buildings, and any synonym for waste/feces were among the words I had to write my way around. If I hadn’t had access to “water”, I might have given up in despair.
But my challenge was nothing compared to that faced by Chris, as he explained paleomagnetism without the word magnet:
I study what rocks tell us about how the ground moves and changes over many, many (more than a hundred times a hundred times a hundred) years. I can do this because little bits hidden inside a rock can remember where they were when they formed, and can give us their memories if we ask them in the right way. From these memories we can tell how far and how fast the rocks have moved, and if they have been turned around, in the time since they were made. It is important to know the stories of the past that rocks tell, because it is only by understanding that story that we really understand the place where we live, how to find the things that we need to live there, and how it might change in the years to come. We also need to know these things so we can find the places where the ground can move or shake very fast, which can be very bad for us and our homes.
I think it’s brilliant. Chris’s comment was “Good thing rock was one of them [the approved words].” Following our tweets, several other geoscientists took up the challenge.
- Patrick Donohue (@poikiloblastic) storified a good selection of them, including several from the planetary science community as well as disciplines beyond geoscience.
- Other contributions include those by climate scientist/geologist Kelly Hereid,
- climate scientist specializing in droughts and civilization Benjamin Cook,
- aeolian geomorphologist James King,
- exploration geophysicistMatt Hall
- paleoclimatologist Kim Cobb
- and I’m sure there are more I’ve missed.
I’d like to issue a challenge to the geoscience community (and the broader scientific community). Go to the Up Goer 5 text editor and explain your research or discipline in the 10 hundred most common words. Then drop a link in the comments or tweet it at Chris or I. We’ll update the list this evening, and I’m sure we’ll all learn a tremendous amount in the process. Not just about science, but also about the how to communicate our cool stuff in clear accessible ways. Have fun!
Update: We have seen so many wonderful answers to this challenge that we decided they need to be properly preserved for electronic posterity. Check out Ten Hundred Words of Science on Tumblr, where we’ve posted all the responses we were made aware of. Not there? It’s possible to submit your own entries right in the sidebar.