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  • Writer's pictureMelinda

Simple Language, Complex Concepts

If you've read any of these blog posts or interact with me at all, you know I have a thing for science and science communications. Why? Because science is all at once amazing, intriguing, and not understood widely enough. I believe that last point is a result of two major barriers:

1. Society doesn't care enough

2. There isn't enough content that is presented in the right way.

Now, these two are not completely independent of each other but allow me to expand. First, the point about society. If you look at what is trending on Twitter or how many clicks web pages get or whatever metric you like, chances are the rear end of some starlet is getting more likes than, say, a research publication. But is this because people just don't care about science and instead care only about pop culture? I don't believe so. I believe it is partly to do with point number 2. The content that makes it to the average consumer is either dumbed down, sensationalized, or left too complicated. If you're not with me yet, think of the following fictional yet based-on-reality examples. We've all seen them:

"Read How Coffee Can Prevent Cancer!" followed the next day by "Coffee: is Your Morning Joe Giving You Cancer?" I have seen similar headlines for chocolate and wine. And, in the face of this disparate evidence, I have chosen to do the only reasonable thing. Consume lots of all 3.

How about this headline:

"Climate Change is Literally a Boner Killer." I'll wait for you to stop laughing. I'll also wait for myself to stop laughing. Ok, so-- wait no, still laughing.

Ok, now I'm good. So, by this headline alone- what do you think the story is about? When I read this, I think that increases in either temperature or greenhouse gases inhibit the ability for males to get an erection. Turns out, when you look at the actual study -- and prepare to be shocked -- this is not what the study was about. Like not at all. GUYS, THEY DIDN'T EVEN MENTION THE WORD BONER IN THE STUDY. Ok, I'll stop yelling. The study compared temperature to birth rates. Yup, not boners. Not even other factors that might contribute. Click here for a few more of these ridiculous headlines.

Here's the point: the world needs more real science. Not science with buzz words like "boner" and not with words that make some of our brains shut down like "astrophysics." Sorry, astrophysicists, but it's just true for many people. Instead, we need to tell stories that connect with people. We can and should convey complex ideas. We just need to use simple language. I'm not saying people are stupid. I'm saying we all connect better when we can easily read things. I am a scientist but my brain also shuts off when I start to read an article full of jargon. So I'm going to repeat what I've just written, which also happens to be my mantra as a science writer: Simple Language, Complex Ideas.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a life-changing talk by Dr. John Lienhard IV. He is an engineer and professor emeritus at University of Houston. He has a radio show called Engines of Our Ingenuity that is available nationally on public radio. The dude is about to turn 90 and absolutely kills it in science communication. And if all this isn't enough, he told us how he wrote the latest edition of his textbook Heat Transfer. With his son. Who is also an engineer. And (sit down for this one so you don't faint from his awesomeness) they made the edition available for free. So he's basically an angel. I mean, come on...

Now, onto Dr. Lienhard's talk. I'm willing to bet that if you tell someone you're going to discuss the laws of thermodynamics with them, 9 times out of 10, they'll lose interest. It's not because that person is not smart or doesn't care, it's because you've set them up poorly for caring. You've just said, I'm about to lecture to you. Also, pick your timing. Like, maybe don't say this at a party or whatever. I believe you have to find a shared interest in something before you start in with any science. If you are a scientist reading this, I'm sure you're thinking but Melinda, I would totally be interested in a sciency conversation opener. I'd remind you that you are not most people. I am going to share with you a few lines from Dr. Lienhard's talk (which come from one of his radio spots). I am not being hyperbolic when I tell you that these lines gave me chills (no heat transfer pun intended) and changed the way I think about science and communications:

Every time anything happens - anything at all - both energy and matter are changed. Electricity turns into thermal energy in your stove coils. They glow red hot. That energy flows as heat into your tea kettle. It changes water into steam.

Every time anything happens - anything at all. I inhale. My lungs are cooled. I burn the air. I am fueled and empowered.

Everything that happens has to obey two rules. One says that all that energy constantly changes; but its sum stays the same. Warm an ice cube and you cool your lemonade. A leaf falls. Its tiny potential energy dissipates in air friction and in a delicate impact with the earth. Earth and air are warmed - far too little to notice.

That last part, about the leaf... as I listened to him speak, I could picture the leaf falling. I tried to describe this portion of his talk to family and friends but failed to do it as beautifully as he did. But I can still picture that red-orange leaf and how tiny amounts of energy are moving around as it falls. And that, right there, is what communication is about, isn't it? Not to have our words repeated verbatim, but to evoke an image in the listener or reader. He painted a vivid image in my mind of how energy flows and now I will forever understand thermodynamics in a new way. I understood it in some form from schooling. But equations are not feelings. They are not colors. And they are not a mental grasp of a concept. True, equations may be this for a select few people. But not for most of us. Side note: I was so inspired by his talk, I wrote a short poem about heat transfer. It is not as beautiful as his description.

Aside from the poetic prose and accessible metaphors he uses (we've all drank lemonade and seen leaves fall in autumn), look at the words he uses. If you score this passage using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, it is suitable for a 12 year old. I'm willing to bet even younger kids could read and understand this.

So this is it right here. This is the epitome of what is missing by and large: science told simply, yet elegantly. Watching this talk, it dawned on me. We can and should discuss science in a way that is aesthetic and beautiful AND accurate. We can tell touching stories using metaphor without compromising the science.

Are you with me?


Your Average Neuroscientist,


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