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Andrew Alden

Picturing Scientific Lives with 1000 Words

By January 19, 2013

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There's a thread in a place on the Well, my online community for more than 20 years, where we hold conversations using only words of one syllable. (Another example, conversely (also admittedly smaller), houses conversations without using any monosyllabic lexemes.) It's fun and creative, and something very much like that permeates a wave of posts among science bloggers, in which the writers try to describe what they do using only the thousand most common words in English. The results are being compiled in a Tumblr collection called Ten Hundred Words of Science.

I think there is real virtue in being able to say to people, as environmental geochemist Florence Bullough does, that "I study how to take things that are bad for your body out of drinking water." It's worth looking at your own job under the same challenge. Some specialists have trouble because their central concepts aren't among the thousand words, so we get circumlocutions like "the red world" (Mars) or "very tiny bits" (atoms) or "places where rocks are thrown out of the ground" (volcanoes). For my part, I can do no better in describing my work than science writer Emily Lakdawalla: "Lots of people who study things in the sky ["rocks" in my case] don't know how to tell people about their work. My job is to listen to those people, and then I tell everyone else what they said, using words that everyone else understands."

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