Jargon

Andy Fire visited Vanderbilt yesterday and spoke as part of the Discovery Lecture series. The grad students in our lab got to meet with him and take him through a data blitz, and then we heard his lecture. During the group meeting, I was struck by how quickly he followed our research and had ready, relevant questions. His sharpness was also obvious during his lecture, and when processing it afterwards with my labmates, the consensus was that the lecture was among the best we have heard.

Part of what made the talk great was Dr. Fire’s quiet passion for his science, present as an undertone throughout. The other part is that his presentation of the material was undeniably clear. He has mastered the delicate middle ground between overloading the listener with and not using enough jargon. Jargon can be dangerous for scientists and scientific communicators alike. Too much jargon and you quickly lose your audience, not enough and they may be insulted. How do we, as scientists and communicators, reach the perfect balance?

In this Nature column, Trevor Quirk urges science writers not to shy away from jargon, suggesting that important shades of meaning are lost when we do. Quirk underlines his belief in the importance of jargon thus:

When writers avoid jargon unquestioningly, readers start to think that it serves no purpose. The world increases in complexity every day, and we should not let shrink our capacity to describe it.

In contrast to the more absolute statements from Quirk’s piece, two amazing science writers, Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, make great points about the need for balance when using jargon here and here. Says Yong,

Filling prose with jargon, and failing to consider the all-important audience, ensures that you lose the battle before you’ve even published a pixel. Nobody has ever felt obliged to read. Don’t give them reasons to stop.

So as I continue to teeter between the assumption that my audience can understand the language I use and pedantically explaining the heck out of the science, I will also continue to be thankful for hearing great examples of science communication like Dr. Fire’s Discovery Lecture.

From the “It’s funny ’cause it’s true” category

Goodness, I had fun (and spent a lot of time) today on the Twitterz. If you haven’t already, check out #overlyhonestmethods. As far as I can tell, the original idea for this amazing hashtag concept goes to @dr_leigh. Tons of scientists and science-associated folks joined in, and the results are absolutely amazing.  #overlyhonestmethods has been storified here, but I also wanted to share a few of my favorites:

Neil deGrasse Tyson

The cover of the program.
The cover of the program.

In thinking about celebrities, scientists don’t often come to mind. As a graduate student, I have been starstruck a few times meeting a big name PI at a conference, but most U.S. citizens have probably not shared this experience. Neil deGrasse Tyson is probably the closest thing to a celebrity scientist that exists, and he spoke at Vanderbilt on Tuesday.

Tyson’s talk, titled something like “The Top 10 Out of This World Things You Should Know,” was incredible. Before Tuesday night, I was not particularly interested in astronomy, believing (like a typical developmental biologist) that the most fascinating science is right here on Earth (and has something to do with a vertebrate embryo). How uniformed I was. With the perfect combination of sincerity, silly jokes, and skillful metaphors, Tyson blew my mind.

He seems to have the ability to communicate scope and size more accessibly than any other scientist I’ve heard speak. For instance, Tyson started his top 10 list with a series of illustrations to convey how large the number of stars in the observable universe is. Because he wanted us to “really feel it,” he started with a million and stepped up and up toward the final number, a sextillion. My favorite example he used was that 100 billion hamburgers would wrap around Earth 82 times. We definitely felt it. Also, did you know that (according to NDT) there are more molecules in one cup of water than there are cups of water in the whole world? He brilliantly led everyone in that audience to see, feel, and understand exactly how big (the universe) and how small (molecules) these hard to grasp things are.

Furthermore, he convinced me that we need to put more money into space-related science by talking about an object out there in space on track to hit Earth. We have the technological ability, he said, to disrupt the path of this object, but that program no longer has funding. While I understand that this way to talk about science is somewhat of an alarmist, cheap shot approach, it worked. And isn’t that what all scientists want to be able to do, convince people that their work is relevant, important, and interesting?

Throughout his talk, Tyson made fun of his inner nerd. For instance, he recently helped Superman find his home star. When he showed us the image from the comic, and then, unbuttoning his blazer, said, “That vest is real, and I’m wearing it right now,” applause and laughter filled the room. He also just attended Comic-Con, and said about the attendees that while they obviously cherish their actors, they also know there wouldn’t be any of it without the real science. This ability to be relatable, while at the same time honoring nerds everywhere, has certainly helped make Tyson famous.

With his relative fame comes the ability to fill a hall, be the host of an upcoming TV show, and, most importantly, have people listen when he talks about his priorities. It wouldn’t hurt to have a few more celebrity scientists around, to do great work, be outstanding communicators, and take the time to talk about important ideas (space exploration, science literacy) in terms the masses can understand.