Sarah Lichtner
Translating Complex Science into Simple Terms
Sarah LichtnerMarch 21, 2013

Science is like another language. It’s full of acronyms, long words, diagrams, and complex explanations that cause head scratching and glazed-over eyes amid non-scientists. Yet, science improves our daily lives: smartphones that give us access to the whole world in the palm of our hands, flu shots with an even smaller needle, and cars that can reduce our energy use by responding to our driving habits.

We keep reaping the benefits of scientific advances, but we don’t have a full understanding of how things work or why. To keep the knowledge gap from continuously growing, we need to prevent the language of science from becoming an impassable divide. After all, science isn’t just some other world. It’s our world.

Alan Alda—that’s right, Emmy-winning actor and director known most for his role on M*A*S*H—started a contest he hopes will help to bridge the science gap. His challenge is for scientists to answer scientific questions in simple terms that an 11-year-old can understand. And the 11-year-olds are the ones posing the questions.

Alda has always had a passion for science and an inclination to search for explanations. When he was 11-years-old, he asked his teacher “what is a flame?” Still obviously disappointed by the simple answer of “oxidation,” Alda started the Flame Challenge last year. Sponsored by the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Flame Challenge is run by the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science, which Alda also helped found.

This year, Alda gathered the questions of 11-year-olds and selected the one to pose to scientists around the world: “What is time?” As scientists search for ways to define such a complex concept into simple terms, Alda hopes to remind them of how important it is to communicate to the public. A panel of thousands of 11-year-olds will be judging their entries to determine if they succeeded in explaining time.

Here at Nexight, we’re not often communicating highly technical information to 11-year-olds (well, not as part of our jobs), but we do translate forward-thinking scientific ideas into terms that non-scientists, including policymakers, can grasp. Science writing is all about helping people to understand the science at work in their daily lives. It’s about getting across the ideas with the potential to change our world to the people who have the power to make them a reality.