14 Strictly Easy Explanations for Complex Ideas

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tumblr_static_citizen_science_poster_design400Do you often come up dry when thinking about common modern phenomena or ideas that you simply can’t explain? Why does gravity work? Why do people speak different languages? How do cell phones work? Randall Monroe, a web comic creator, conducted a novel linguistic experiment: he came up with a description of the Saturn V spaceship using only the 1,000 most popular words in English. The idea further inspired geneticist Theo Anderson to invent a text editor that forces its users to write using English’s 1,000 most popular words, and no others. He asked top scientists to describe their jobs using the filter. The results have been collected by blogger/geologists Anne Jefferson and Chris Rowan. Here are a few of the best:

Brandon Jones
Job: Google technician
Subject: Internet development
“Computers are used to share pictures, words, and movies (usually of cats) with other computers. The computers need to show the cats on boxes with tiny lights in them, but don’t know how. People like me tell the computer many words so that it knows how to change the tiny lights to look like a cat. We try to make the lights change very fast so that you don’t have to wait for your cats. Some days the lights are all wrong, and we have to tell the computer more words to make them look like cats again.”

Kristoffer Romero
Job: PhD Student, University of Toronto
Subject: Cognitive science
“If we want to know how the brain makes memory and uses memory, we need to make people do things like learn stuff and then remember it. I want to know how we imagine things, and how memory makes this possible. So, I ask people to imagine things, and see how good they are with different words. Then, we look at their brains at work using a big noise box that takes pictures inside the head. We also ask people who are missing a piece of brain to also do stuff to see what they can and can’t do. Then we’ll know what different brain pieces do, and one day put all the pieces together to understand the mind.”

Paul Sorensen
Job: Physicist
Subject: The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider
“Where I work, we slam together small things to break them into even smaller things until we have the smallest things possible. This is how we know what matter is made of.”

Sarah Boon
Job: Environmental scientist
Subject: Environmental hydration cycles
“I look at how water from the sky reaches the ground when there are trees in the way. Especially trees that are burned or dying. I try to figure out if the trees change: (1) how much water gets to the ground, and (2) what happens to the water when it’s on the ground. I also try to figure out what will happen to this water in the next tens of years. This is important for things growing on the ground and living in the water, and for the water we use and drink.”

Jennifer Wang158997004250
Job: Research technician
Subject: Studying fruit fly behavior
“I watch boy flies try to do it with girl flies to see if they really like to do it, or they like boys flies more. This happens when they can’t smell something the girl flies have that makes them want to do it with girl flies or something the boy flies have that makes them not want to do it with boy flies.”

Keri Bean
Job: Planetary scientist
“I tell space buses on a big, cold red rock in space to take pictures of the rocks and the sky. I look at the small rocks that go around the big red rock. The small rocks tell us about what it is like inside the big red rock. I like to look for ice water in the sky. I also take pictures of the Sun to learn about how much ice water and other stuff is in the sky. My favorite thing to do with the space buses is look at the stars in the night sky to look for ice water in the sky.”

Sarah Ouwayda
Job: Linguist
“I look at how numbers play with other words when we speak. I think a lot about the way we mark words (like marking ‘eats’ different from ‘eat’), and what that tells us about what they mean, and what other words around them mean (I show that it tells a lot). I also think a lot about whether the things we say allow more than one meaning. Like if someone says ‘twenty boys ate a hot dog,’ if it means they all shared one hot dog or if it means each one ate a hot dog, or if it means both.”

Christian Ternus
Job: Information security researcher
“There are bad people who want to make the things you see on the computer go away. Sometimes it is for money and sometimes it is a game. The simple way of making computer stuff go away is like shouting very loud so no one can hear. This makes it so you can’t see the things on the computer you want until they stop shouting. I try to make them be quiet.”

Peter Selkin
Job: Paleomagnetist
“Deep inside our world is a huge ball of hot stuff. This is the stuff that turns the black rock we use to find our way when we go far away. I used to study tiny bits of the same black rock, inside real rocks, to know the pull of the deep hot under world ball long, long ago – before people, or animals, or trees, or almost any living things were here. I studied bits of the black rock, like the pieces we use to find our way, inside other rocks that formed in fire under the ground. The hot under ground ball gave these black rock pieces a direction long ago, and they did not forget.”

Nicole Resweber
Job: Mechanical design engineer
Subject: Aerospace engineering
“My job is fun! I make a car that will go in space and meet with a house that is in space. People and things will be able to ride in my space car. I work on the keep cool and breathe part of the space car.”

Science-Image250Alex Gough
Job: PhD student, University of Otago
Subject: Sea ice physics
“When it is cold the Big Water becomes ice. In the long night the Big Water near the place of the long night which has no big white animal becomes ice more quickly than it does in the place of the long night which does have big white animals. I felt the ice and the big water under the ice with better senses than people have, and now know why the ice that grows from the big water sometimes grows with ice leaves on its bottom.”

Warren Durrett
Job: Political economist
“I try to see if bad people with power let bad people in business do bad things for easy money. Also I try to see if this hurts good people and their money.”

Ben Goldacre
Job: Physician/academic/science writer
Subject: Problems with scientific method
“Now, you have your two things that you think will help the sick people get better. Give one to the people in group one, and the other to the people in group two. If you can, it’s a really good idea to make sure that the sick people don’t know which group they are in, or what they are having to make them get better. The same is true for the people working on the problem. This is for a good reason: we have found that people get better faster when they think they have been given something that works well to make them feel better, even if they haven’t really.

“Now: you know what is wrong with your sick people, so you know how long it will take for them to get better. Wait a while, and then look and see if people get better faster (or more better!) in group one, or group two. This will tell you which of the things that you did helped people the most.

“Looking at a big number of sick people will help you to be sure that you have got the right answer. If you have friends who have tried the same idea, you can add their numbers to your numbers and get an even clearer idea of what works best. Don’t let anyone hide their numbers!”

Jordan Ellenberg
Job: Number theorist
“People ask how many of a kind of thing there are; the thing might be a kind of number, or something like a number. I, together with others, work out how many of those things there are by understanding the way some kinds of spaces look; these spaces are, in a way, the same as the things about which we ask, ‘how many,’ but in another way they are different. This allows us to use different ideas when we think about them, and answer some questions about numbers which could not be answered before.”

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