We did not go to space that day, but…

14 November 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in speaking science

Bottom end of Upgoer Five.

A picture of the bottom end of the thing that goes to space. Credit: Randall Munroe (xkcd.com/1133)

As mentioned in a previous post, last week I ran a workshop at the Science Policy, Outreach and Tools Online (SpotOn) conference in London (also known as solo13). The aim of the session was to spark conversations about the use of jargon. To do this, we used the "Upgoer5" text editor to translate the abstract of a scientific paper using only the thousand most common English words, then discussed the challenge presented by the concept of "jargon" in online science communication.

Alex Brown presenting the workshop

Le moi, offering up some top tips. Not pictured: skull (Shakespearean). Photo by Jason Wen

Specifically, the abstract I gave people (thanks to Anna Sharman for suggesting it!) was this:

While the impact of crowding on the diffusive transport of molecules within a cell is widely studied in biology, it has thus far been neglected in traffic systems where bulk behavior is the main concern. Here, we study the effects of crowding due to car density and driving fluctuations on the transport of vehicles. Using a microscopic model for traffic, we found that crowding can push car movement from a superballistic down to a subdiffusive state. The transition is also associated with a change in the shape of the probability distribution of positions from a negatively-skewed normal to an exponential distribution. Moreover, crowding broadens the distribution of cars’ trap times and cluster sizes. At steady state, the subdiffusive state persists only when there is a large variability in car speeds. We further relate our work to prior findings from random walk models of transport in cellular systems.

You can read the full paper (because, appropriately enough, it has been published under Open Access) here.

Anna Sharman presenting #solo13upgoer

Anna weighs up different types of jargon. Not pictured: jargon itself (conceptual) Photo by Jason Wen

You can read the results of participants' work here. Although the session was relatively short (under an hour from start to finish, including introduction and discussion), they came across quite a few different issues involved in translation. What was the original text about? No, seriously. Did this paper study cells in a microscope, or cars in a traffic jam, or some combination of the two? Is it all just meant to be a big metaphor? How can ideas be re-arranged without losing their meaning? Which words are jargon, and of what type? Which seemingly simple words make perfect sense in one context but are problematic elsewhere? And so on...

Solo13upgoer Alex points at the screen

Jon was all like "WTF" when I started dancing disco half-way through the session. Photo by Jason Wen

Of course, the real point of the exercise was not to come up with an oversimplified, unclear explanation of the results of some experiment. Rather, by using this reductio ab absurdam example, I wanted to get people thinking about how we pick words when communicating online. Every word counts (not "every last word counts"). So it's worth spending some time checking you are using the right ones, or at least not the wrong ones. I think I achieved this in my little workshop (though feel free to correct me in the comments if you felt it was a total waste of time!)

Personally, I enjoyed delivering the session. An unexpected advantage of being scheduled last on the Saturday afternoon was that the whole conference was less busy than it had been at its peak (Friday afternoon). Given the lay-out of the conference facilities, we had had to announce a limit to the number of participants. However, this turned out to be unnecessary because enough people had left by that point anyway. Also, being billed at the same time as the Lego session meant there was some pretty stiff competition (even I would have wanted to go to that one!)

Unlike other sessions at #solo13, there was not a lot of online coverage during the workshop itself. As Eva Amsen tweeted (afterwards)

There was no time to tweet at all during #solo13upgoer. ("There was no time to write short things.")

If anything, however, I am pleased that participants were too busy getting on with the activity they were meant to be engaging with rather than tweeting about it. Although I'm generally a fan of live-tweeting at conferences and presentations, this was definitely meant to be a hands-on workshop.

The participants at #solo13upger

Workshops have "participants" as opposed to shows, which have "audiences". Look at me getting my #scicomm terms right (right?! please don't hit me if not). Photo by Jason Wen

That being said, the workshop was recorded, for what it's worth. You can watch it below. It gets quite dull in the middle as everyone set about writing and we turned the microphones off, so you might as well skip the section between 06:40 and 34:15.

Thanks again to all the participants who put up with my quaint, somewhat last-minute idea for a bit of  "organised fun". It really is the audience that makes the show in these situations, and you all came up with some insightful discussion throughout; I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful!

Finally, I'd like to offer renewed thanks to Anna Sharman, whose help was invaluable (including digging up that particularly fiendish abstract!), and to Laura Wheeler, Martin Fenner and (especially) Lou Woodley for organising the conference and recruiting me to put together the session. I learned a lot, met plenty of interesting & useful people, and had a bit of fun, too! See you next year...?

Laura, Martin and Lou sitting on some toy sheep at the British Library

Laura, Martin and Lou. I gather organising conferences has some impact. Photo: Jason Wen

Over to you:

  • Were you in my workshop? What did you think of the exercise? Was my facilitation any good?
  • Is the abstract we used well-written? (Obviously this depends on the audience, but within that, does it reach its target?)
  • Does the move to Open Access have consequences for how scientists should write their journal articles?
  • Have you tried to re-write the abstract above using Upgoer5? Have you published the results somewhere? Feel free to could use the comments box below.

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4 Responses to “We did not go to space that day, but…”

  1. Sally James (@jamesian) Reply | Permalink


    I wish I could have been in your workshop. I did a short video for IGNITE on this topic. Scientists at the University of Washington hold an upgoer contest almost every year.

    Are you going to scio14? If so, would be happy to help with some more fun.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      I'd *live* to do something like this but unless some ludicrously benevolent soul/organisation wants to pay for flights etc I highly doubt I could make it. Not to mention recent weirdness relating to how session topics are pitched and selected...

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