Scientists too often think that what they’re doing has to be “dumbed down” to a non-science audience. We argue about constitutes “dumbing down” all the time. Much of science is about communication. We write papers that are published in peer-reviewed journals, we write grants to potential funding sources, we give presentations at professional meetings. Any scientist who has been at this for any amount of time will tell you that each of these forms of communication requires a different form and structure. Explaining science in everyday, common language is decidedly not “dumbing down” science. The language one uses must be appropriate for the audience, but the message and meaning does not have to change at all.

It’s no different in conveying science to non-scientists – or other scientists who are not in your specialty. It’s all about using the correct language for your audience and the goals for the communication you are trying to accomplish. In fact, when a scientist can explain their work or ideas in their field to non-specialists, they almost invariably find that the process of struggling with that communication makes them understand what they are trying to convey at a much deeper and more profound level. You never really understand something you’re working on until you have to explain it to someone else.

That’s why I find Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge so fascinating. The idea is to explain a common, everyday scientific phenomenon to an 11-year old, and 11-year old’s get to judge which explanation is the best. The idea is to take a common phenomenon that everyone knows and explain the scientific basis of the phenomenon. This is really hard, but really important stuff.

The first challenge held in 2012 was to explain What is a flame? Fire! Something everyone knows. But what is it, what is it made of, where does it come from, why does it have the colors it has, etc., etc., etc.? And the winner is

This is by Ben Ames, Ph.D. candidate in quantum optics at the University of Innsbruck. It’s just a brilliant explanation of a flame!

The 2013 question was What is time? Another brilliant and deceptively simple question. We all know what it is, but what’s the science behind it, explained in way that even an 11-year old will grasp deeply. And the 2013 winner is

This too is brilliant! This is by Steven Maguire, a PhD candidate studying inorganic catalysis at the University of Ottawa.

Both are scientifically precise and accurate (yes those words do mean different things – ask a scientist). They are also delivered in very different styles. There’s no right way to do this stuff, or anything for that matter.

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