Geoscientists describe research with only 1,000 most common words

Jack Stenglein

This year UT geological sciences Ph.D. student Rachel Bernard challenged her peers to describe their research using only 1,000 of the most common words in the English language.

Bernard said she hopes more people will contribute to the Jackson School of Geosciences’ new blog while also making their studies more accessible to those not in geoscience. She said she was inspired by a cartoon on the webcomic xkcd, which illustrated the schematics for NASA’s Saturn V rocket using a compilation of 1,000 common words.

“The topic of scientists communicating with the public has been more on people’s minds (recently),” Bernard said. “Usually when scientists have a problem with the public not understanding, they just want to explain harder. It’s a valuable lesson to talk about your research in a way your mom could understand.”

Bud Davis, a Ph.D. candidate in geophysics, answered Bernard’s challenge with a description of “land rocks,” which he said make up the Earth’s outer layer above the ocean, and “sea rocks,” which make up the Earth’s outer layer under the ocean.

“At the place where Land Rocks and Sea Rocks meet, there is sometimes a lot of the black stuff that makes your car engine run,” Davis said in his response. “So figuring out how Land Rocks and Sea Rocks form is really important for understanding how much black stuff there is on Earth and where it might be.”

Bernard said that at times the challenge can be ridiculous, as some well-known words like “mineral” cannot be used. Researchers checked their summaries using a tool on xkcd’s website.

“I don’t think you would talk to an adult this way,” Bernard said. “It can seem like you’re talking down to people. It’s hard because when you’re talking to other scientists, it’s useful to have jargon. You sometimes need these really specific terms and phrases.”

Bernard said that despite the possibility for condescension, she thinks the concept of explaining complicated research using simpler words is still helpful.

“Scientists as individuals can lose touch pretty quickly,” Bernard said. “We forget what other people know and then we have trouble communicating with them. I think it’s useful for anyone to practice using simpler language, especially for grad students before we lose touch with reality.”