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Up Goer Five

2013/01/19

A while ago, the webcomic xkcd published a schematic of the Saturn V rocket, with annotations written using only the thousand (or “ten hundred”) most commonly used words. Since then, Theo Sanderson has made an online application, where you can enter text to see whether all the words are on the top-1000 list.

Physics teacher Alby Reid also (much sooner after the original xkcd) wrote a post about how you can do this by yourself offline (in a nutshell, it’s about custom dictionaries in your word processor). His blog is generally excellent, with a number of interesting physics questions.

Many people have taken up the challenge to explain supposedly difficult concepts in such simple terms. There is a collection of scientists’ attempts to explain their own work here. Some have even taken to summarising their words in Tweet form (even harder if you include the hashtag!). One of my favourites so far is by Jonathan Pritchard, who wrote:

Under the band of stars in the sky, a whisper of light from early stuff says when the first stars formed. I want to find it.

This all reminds me of the Little BIG Event 2011: delegates were asked to summarize what they do in 140 characters (the length of a tweet). I remember hearing plenty of jargon being thrown around then, because texts using only the most popular words are inevitably longer. Is there a balance to be struck between using words that are understandable, versus texts that are short enough?

I wrote an #upgoerfive post about the idea of “false friends” in foreign languages (e.g. “éventuellement” in French has a different meaning to “eventually” in English). Interestingly, the word “language” wasn’t on the list, so I had to use “tongue” instead. But is the word “tongue”, used to mean language, really amongst the 1000 most common “concepts”? I suppose I could have used “sets of words”, but I didn’t think that would quite convey the same idea.

Of course, 1000 is an arbitrary cut-off point, and we could argue forever about exactly which words go on the list (eg “list” isn’t one of them) but I think it’s a useful exercise nonetheless.

On the whole, I think this whole “up goer five” phenomenon shows that rigorous jargon-busting is completely possible (more from me on jargon). For example, see the Wikipedia “simple English” project.

So, in simple terms, what do you do?

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This post is a slightly altered version of an email I sent to the BIG-chat email list, in the hope of gathering the views of that community.

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Update:  Jon Butterworth linked to this post in a post of his own, which I recommend.

Update 2: I’ve posted a brief response to some of the critics of the Up Goer Five exercise.

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7 Comments
  1. Thanks – I was not aware of #upgoerfive before I had read your posts! It’s quite a challenge – I tried my current and previous fields of expertise and none of the required ‘common’ terms is permitted.
    E.g. ‘heat pump’ is disallowed as well as heater, heating, energy… ‘Make rooms warm’ would be permitted! ;-)

  2. I gave a public talk about a University of Washington contest for grad students to use upgoer. http://youtu.be/Q-h5qt1VvFk

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Simple tool fails to solve complex problem, world shocked « Alexander Brown .info
  2. Spam: at least it’s polite « Alexander Brown .info
  3. Introducing my false friend | Do you speak science?

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