May 17, 2004
Plain English

I am no scientist, but life as the wife of a technology enthusiast* has taught me a thing or two about communicating things in simple language. For instance, at dinner with my parents, who are usually indifferent to technology, I have been known to whisper "explain what that means" or "make it easier" to E. as he gamely tries to explain his job, or the Internet, to them.

With many members of the public, you can't talk about packets, or code, or metatags. You have to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn't understand. I always remember how I was introduced to the editing system in college, by a fellow editor who began: "The computer is like a big filing cabinet..." Laugh if you will, but I understood, and I still remember it.

So I liked this story, which talks to scientists who are apparently just waking up to the fact that the public doesn't understand what they're talking about. Like this Harvard astronomy professor:

Snowballs and buses are his metaphors of choice. He says his groundbreaking research on the expansion of the universe--it involves charting the relative dimness of light traveling through space--can be understood by picturing snowballs (subbing for photons) smacking a moving bus (a galaxy).

"If the bus is driving by but speeding up, the snowball barely clunks it," [he says]..."If it's slowing down, the snowball hits with a thud."

(via E-Media Tidbits)

*We don't say "geek." This could damage his self-esteem and no one wants that!

Posted at May 17, 2004 06:21 PM