Photo Credit: xkcd.com
November 25, 2013

The Case for Simple Science

As a communications specialist working amongst scientists, I often find myself scribbling down words I hear in meetings or read in publications under the title: “words to look up”. The latest entries on my list: ecotones, heterotrophs, and autotrophs.

Developing a close relationship with Google has led me into all sorts of black holes of wordy and dry scientific explanations. What I’ve learned after clicking through link after link is that science, though sometimes admittedly very complicated, does not have to be accompanied by dry or technical descriptions. When the jargon and terms are swept away, a story emerges. And for someone approaching science with little context or background, a story or the bigger picture is what they need.

Take the Higgs Boson particle, for example. Previous articles explaining the “God Particle” left a noisy and incoherent picture in my head. Gwynne Corrigan, a colleague at CBI, shared a simple visualization from the NY Times, clarifying the bigger picture and freeing me up from the countless YouTube videos explaining quarks. The Higgs field as a field of snow? Electrons as a skier barely interacting with the field? These are images and a story I can grab hold of. At times even my first grader’s Smithsonian science books by Seymour Simon are more inspirational to me than the high school chemistry textbook I remember suffering through. Overwhelmed by the small picture of individual elements and their technical names, chemistry became a dry subject I had to endure. I missed the bigger picture of interrelation and connectivity. I missed out on the awe of nature. (I also missed out on getting a good grade in chemistry).

Humorist Randal Munroe’s description of NASA’s Saturn V Rocket is the jackpot of science translation and theUp Goer Five “bigger picture”.  Allowing himself access to only the 1000 most frequent words used in the English language, the rocket was renamed “up-goer five” and the lunar module is “the part that flies down to the other world with two people inside”. Munroe’s creative web-comic inspired geneticist Theo Sanderson to create a text editor that limits a user to the 1000 most frequent words used in English. Sanderson dared others to “explain a hard idea” using his text editor and Geologists Anne Jefferson and Chris Rowan rose to the challenge describing paleomagnetism without the use of the word “magnet” and urban hydrology without the words “river” or “stream”. Soon other geo-scientists began contributing descriptions and explanations and Jefferson and Rowan created the Tumblr account “Ten Hundred Words of Science” to collect the resulting “up-goer five” versions of complex scientific concepts and research, explanations accessible to even a child.

I’m not suggesting that science education should use children’s books as textbooks or that environmentally based organizations should use “up-goer Five” to craft an absurd mission statement (though it would be fun to read some of the “translated” job descriptions of CBI scientists). But the challenge of distilling complex scientific information into a clear and relatable message is a true barrier in science communication and outreach.

At CBI, we recognize that challenge and are taking steps to make our work more approachable. We are reaching out to organizations like the World Forestry Center, OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry), TechBridge and others who help students, educators and the general public translate the science and connect the dots between the technical scientific data and the world around them. In the coming year, we are excited to have the opportunity to support the World Forestry Center’s 2014 International Educators Institute. At the historic Wind River Field Station, we will introduce educators to Data Basin, CBI’s science based mapping and analysis platform, enabling educators to “see the forest with new eyes, top to bottom”. Using Data Basin in the field to link research, education and mapping will support the advancement of effective teaching pedagogy and learning. Another avenue we are excited about is OMSI’s Science on a Sphere (SOS), a six-foot suspended globe in OMSI’s Earth Hall that projects dynamic animated images using computers and video projectors. Visitors entering Earth Hall experience the powerful visualization of scientific datasets like global warming trends and hurricane paths displayed on a globe and transformed into a story.

Climate change is an environmental, scientific, technological, economic, political and social problem. But it is also a problem of translation. Translating the jargon, data and case studies into accessible forms, into metaphors and into stories, has the potential to engender a sense of awe and an awareness of the interrelated nature of this world. And perhaps it will save one high school student from chucking her chemistry textbook in the trashcan. It may even inspire her to reach for that book first.

About the author:
Ann Van Zee, M.S.
Communications Strategist
Ann is a Communications Advisor at CBI pursuing collaborative relationships for the Institute and assisting with outreach and education initiatives.
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