Explaining geoscience using only the 10 hundred most common words

A post by Anne JeffersonIt’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.

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.

Categories: academic life, public science, science education
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Comments (20)

  1. Matt Herod says:

    What a great Accretionary Wedge topic this would be!! I nominate it for the next available opportunity.

  2. Gordon Luster says:

    This can be done at multiple levels. For example, the “BNC-20” vocabulary profiler on the page below will classify your text into thousand-word levels from the first thousand words up to 20,000 words, comparing words to the British National Corpus. (Their thousand-word list differs slightly from the one you used.) The “VP-Kids” profiler works at the bottom end, in 250-word steps. http://www.lextutor.ca/vp/

  3. Bob J says:

    “I study how much rain falls over the course of a year has changed over time by looking at the tiny stuff making up pointed rocks formed by water under the ground and how it changes with time. Other stuff in these rocks also shows changes in land use, fire rocks bursting from the ground, green life growing above and other stuff. I also work out how old these rocks are by looking at how much stuff has broken down with time to make new stuff.”

    Difficult without the words Cave, Speleothem, Stalagmite, Element, Chemistry, Radioactive or Decay.

  4. Tisha Irwin says:

    I am only just embarking on my second career (in geology), so I decided to give this a try with my first career: http://goo.gl/BZ8BG

  5. Wayne Ranney says:

    Hmm. A great challenge for all of us! When I first started I was negatively warned by use of the words “river” and “evolve”. Evolve I can kind of understand. But river? That seems a bit strict. And Survrat had to say “one million” this way: “10 hundred times 10 hundred years ago. Wouldn’t one million be more easily recognized? Someone reading this would have to stop and figure it out and that can’t be good for science. I’ll try again but maybe the number 1,000 is not the optimal length. The concept is fantastic however. Thanks!

  6. Wayne Ranney says:

    So here goes:

    “My job is to make hard to understand ideas easier to approach for those who have no training in them. I write stories about things that are studied by the few, in ways that can be understood by the many. I write about the land and how it came to look the way it does today. This deals with what happened here on our home a long, long time ago. Most people never think about such things so it is a real big job to try to make it interesting. I keep trying and that is why I am writing this. It took me a much longer time that I thought it would. And that is why I love my job.”

  7. My attempt – who knew geoscience pedagogical research would be so hard to communicate???? http://bit.ly/10i67Se

  8. Lockwood says:

    Here’s mine- much more quick and painless than I was expecting. http://outsidetheinterzone.blogspot.com/2013/01/up-goer-5.html

  9. Lab Lemming says:

    Anne: If you need a synonym for waste/feces, “shit” is on the list…

  10. Jason says:

    I’m sure I could have done better but here’s a basic one for hydrography. http://goo.gl/kfraf

  11. Tom Clifton says:

    I really wish that “sand” was in the top 1000.

    “I study small waves that form in small pieces of rock under moving water. If the water is not deep and moving fast these waves will form small waves at the top of the water as well.

    Because the water is not deep and moving fast the small pieces of rock are added to the side of the under water wave that faces the moving water and taken away from the other side. This makes the under water wave move in a direction against the direction that the water is moving. The waves at the top of the water move in this direction as well. As the waves at the bottom of the water move, they also build up. The waves at the top of the water also build up until they break.

    The moving water sorts the small pieces of rock in to groups of like small pieces of rock. Because the water is not deep, and moving fast these groups are different than groups formed by deeper and slower moving water.

    By looking at old groups of small pieces of rock, you may be able to tell if the moving water that they formed under was slow and deep or not.”

  12. Pat Campbell says:

    That was hard but fun– thanks for doing this

    When many different types of people study the world, we get better answers to the problems that face us. Yet there are many things that stop men of color and all women from working on these problems. I study what those things are and work to find ways that we can help more and different people become the kinds of people who will help us fix the world’s problems.

  13. Ok, I’am no geologist, but I’m around here for quite a while. So I think I could try to tell what I do for living. So my contribution to the 1000-Simple-Words-Meme is:

    “I and some other people have some houses where people work. We make parts out of a very light stuff that is also very strong. The parts are being used in cars or houses or even in a kitchen. We are good in making many parts in a short time. I tell the people working for me, how they have to make the parts and I do plan everything needed for making them. I also talk to the people buying these parts and tell them how the parts should look like. In the best possible case the people buying my parts are very happy and come back very often.”

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