Entries in skills (5)


The plainest English

If you're not already reading xkcd — the must-read sciencey thrice-weekly comic strip — then please give it a try. It's good for you. Check out this wonderful description of the Saturn V rocket, aka Up Goer Five, using only the 1000 most common words in English →

This particular comic took on a life of its own last week, when Theo Sanderson built a clever online text editor that parses your words and highlights the verboten ones. Then, following the lead of @highlyanne, a hydrologist, scientists all over Twitter quickly started describing and sharing parsimonious descriptions of what they do. Anne and her partner in crime, @Allochthonous, then compiled a log of every description they could find. It's worth looking at, though it would take a while to read them all. 

What's it like using only the simplest words? I tried to define a well...

A deep, round, empty space in the ground that is only about as wide as your hand. The empty space is very deep: up to about seven tens of hundreds of times as deep as a man is tall. It is full of water. After making the empty space, we can lower small computers into it. As we pull them out, the computers tell us things about the rocks they can 'see' — like how fast waves move through them, or how much water the rocks have in them.

It's quite hard. But refreshingly so. Here's reflection seismic...

We make a very loud, short sound on the land or in the water — like a cracking sound. The sound waves go down through the rocks under the ground. As they do so, some of them come back — just as waves come back from the side of a body of water when you throw in a small rock. We can listen to the sound waves that come back, and use a computer to help make a picture of what it looks like under the ground.

Is a world without jargon dumbed down, or opened up? What is it we do again?...

It is very hard to do this work. It takes a lot of money and a long time. The people that do it have to think hard about how to do it without hurting other people or the world we live in. We don't always manage to do it well, but we try to learn from the past so we can do better next time. Most people think we should stop, but if we did, the world would go dark, our homes would be cold (or hot), and people would not be able to go very far.

Check out Up Goer Six — Theo's new editor that colour codes each word according to just how common it is. Try it — what do you do for a living? 

The image is licensed CC-BY-NC-2.5 by Randall Munroe at


Journalists are scientists

Tim Radford. Image: Stevyn Colgan.On Thursday I visited The Guardian’s beautiful offices in King’s Cross for one of their Masterclass sessions. Many of them have sold out, but Tim Radford’s science writing evening did so in hours, and the hundred-or-so budding writers present were palpably excited to be there. The newspaper is one of the most progressive news outlets in the world, and boasts many venerable alumni (John Maddox and John Durant among them). It was a pleasure just to wander around the building with a glass of wine, with some of London’s most eloquent nerds.

Radford is not a trained scientist, but a pure journalist. He left school at 16, idolized Dylan Thomas, joined a paper, wrote like hell, and sat on almost every desk before mostly retiring from The Guardian in 2005. He has won four awards from the Association of British Science Writers. More people read any one of his science articles on a random Tuesday morning over breakfast than will ever read anything I ever write. Tim Radford is, according to Ed Yong, the Yoda of science writers.

Within about 30 minutes it became clear what it means to be a skilled writer: Radford’s real craft is story-telling. He is completely at home addressing a crowd of scientists — he knows how to hold a mirror up to the geeks and reflect the fun, fascinating, world-changing awesomeness back at them. “It’s a terrible mistake to think that because you know about a subject you are equipped to write about it,” he told us, getting at how hard it is to see something from within. It might be easier to write creatively, and with due wonder, about fields outside our own.

Some in the audience weren’t content with being entertained by Radford, watching him in action as it were, preferring instead to dwell on controversy. He mostly swatted them aside, perfectly pleasantly, but one thing he was having none of was the supposed divide between scientists and journalists. Indeed, Radford asserted that journalists and scientists do basically the same thing: imagine a story (hypothesis), ask questions (do experiments), form a coherent story (theory) from the results, and publish. Journalists are scientists. Kind of.

I loved Radford's committed and unapologetic pragmatism, presumably the result of several decades of deadlines. “You don’t have to be ever so clever, you just have to be ever so quick,” and as a sort of corollary: “You can’t be perfectly right, but you must be mostly right.” One questioner accused journalists of sensationalising science (yawn). “Of course we do!” he said — because he wants his story in the paper, and he wants people to read it. Specifically, he wants people who don’t read science stories to read it. After all, writing for other people is all about giving them a sensation of one kind or another.

I got so much out of the 3 hours I could write at least another 2000 words, but I won’t. The evening was so popular that the paper decided to record the event and experiment with a pay-per-view video, so you can get all the goodness yourself. If you want more Radford wisdom, his Manifesto for the simple scribe is a must-read for anyone who writes.

Tim Radford's most recent book, The Address Book: Our Place in the Scheme of Things, came out in spring 2011.

The photograph of Tim Radford, at The World's Most Improbable Event on 30 September, is copyright of Stevyn Colgan, and used with his gracious permission. You should read his blog, Colganology. The photograph of King's Place, the Guardian's office building, is by flickr user Davide Simonetti, licensed CC-BY-NC.


Learn to program

This is my contribution to the Accretionary Wedge geoblogfest, number 38: Back to School. You can read all about it, and see the full list of entries, over at Highly Allochthonous. To paraphrase Anne's call to words:

What do you think students should know? What should universities be doing better? What needs do you see for the rising generation of geoscientists? What skills and concepts are essential? How important are things like communication and quantitative skills versus specific knowledge about rocks/water/maps?

Learn to program

The first of doubtless many moments of envy of my kids' experience of childhood came about two years ago when my eldest daughter came home from school and said she'd been programming robots. Programming robots. In kindergarten. 

For the first time in my life, I wished I was five. 

Most people I meet and work with do not know how to make a computer do what they want. Instead, they are at the mercy of the world's programmers and—worse—their IT departments. The accident of the operating system you run, the preferences of those that came before you, and the size of your budget should not determine the analyses and visualizations you can perform on your data. When you read a paper about some interesting new method, imagine being able to pick up a keyboard and just try it, right now... or at least in an hour or two. This is how programmers think: when it comes to computers at least, their world is full of possibility, not bound by software's edges or hardwired defaults.

Stripped down cameraI want to be plain about this though: I am not suggesting that all scientists should become programmers, hacking out code, testing, debugging, and doing no science. But I am suggesting that all scientists should know how computer programs work, why they work, and how to tinker. Tinkering is an underrated skill. If you can tinker, you can play, you can model, you can prototype and, best of all, you can break things. Breaking things means learning, rebuilding, knowing, and creating. Yes: breaking things is creative.

But there's another advantage to learning to program a computer. Programming is a special kind of problem-solving, and rewards thought and ingenuity with the satisfaction of immediate and tangible results. Getting it right, even just slightly, is profoundly elating. To get these rewards more often, you break problems down, reducing them to soluble fragments. As you get into it, you appreciate the aesthetics of code creation: like equations, computer algorithms can be beautiful.

App Inventor blocks editorThe good news for me and other non-programmers is that it's never been faster or simpler to give programming a try. There are even some amazing tools to teach children and other novices the concepts of algorithms and procedures; MIT's Scratch project is a leader in that field. Some teaching tools, like the Lego MINDSTORMS robotics systems my daughter uses, and App Inventor for Android (right), are even capable of building robust, semi-scientific applications

Chances are good that you don't even need to install anything to get started. If you have a Mac or a Linux machine then you already have instant access to scripting-cum-programming languages like the shell, AWK, Perl and Python. There's even a multi-language interpreter online at These languages are very good places to start: you can solve simple problems with them very quickly and, once you've absorbed the basics, you'll use them every day. Start on AWK now and you'll be done by lunchtime tomorrow. 

For what's it's worth, here are a few tips I'd give anyone learning to program:

  • Don't do anything until you have a specific, not-too-hard problem to solve with a computer
  • If you can't think of anything, the awesome Project Euler has hundreds of problems to solve
  • Choose a high-level language like Python, Perl, or perhaps even Java; stay away from FORTRAN and C
  • Buy no more than one single book, preferably a thick one with a friendly title from O'Reilly
  • Don't do a course before you've tinkered on your own for a bit, but don't wait too long either (here's one)
  • Learn to really use Google: it's the fastest way to figure out what you want to do
  • Have fun brushing up on your math, especially trig, time series analysis, and inverse theory
  • Share what you build: help others learn and get more open

Bust out of the shackles of other people's software: learn to program!


More on brevity

Yesterday, I wrote about one of Orwell's essays, and about Watson and Crick's famous letter to Nature. The theme: short expositions win. Today, I continue the theme, with two more brief but brilliant must-reads for the aspiring writer. 

Albert Einstein

The first time Einstein's equation appeared in printLike the Watson and Crick letter, Einstein's 1905 paper Does the inertia of a body depend on its energy content? was profound and eternal. In it, he derived the expression m = c2. Though the paper was arguably little more than an extension of others he published that year, it was very short: exactly three (small) pages long. His concluding remark couldn't be clearer or more succinct:

If the theory corresponds to the facts, radiation conveys inertia between the emitting and absorbing bodies.

Einstein's writing style was influenced by Ernst Mach's book, The Science of Mechanics (Minor, 1984). Mach adopted a pedagogic, step-by-step style that guided the reader through the scientist's reasoning. Asking the reader to imagine an analogous scenario or simplified example was, in my experience, common in physics books of the period. Richard Feynman used a similar straightforward style. I try to use it myself, but sometimes the desire to impress gets the better of me.

Kenneth Landes

Years of reviewing journal papers has convinced me: the abstract is one of the most abused and misunderstood animals of science. I regularly hand Landes' brilliant little plea to new writers, and it bears re-reading once every couple of years. Landes points out that the abstract should "concentrate in itself the essential information of a paper or article". Here is his superbly cheeky, information-free counterexample:

A partial biography of the writer is given. The inadequate abstract is discussed. What should be covered by an abstract is considered. The importance of the abstract is described. Dictionary definitions of 'abstract' are quoted. At the conclusion a revised abstract is presented. 

Read his short note for the improved version of this soggy squib of an abstract. 

What do we draw from these authors? I'll be brief: so should you.

Einstein, A (1905). Ist die Trägheit eines Körpers von seinem Energiegehalt abhängig?, in Annalen der Physik. 18:639, 1905. Published in English by Methuen, 1923.
Landes, K (1966). A scrutiny of the abstract II. American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin 50 (9), p 1992.
Mach, E (1883). The science of mechanics. Later English translation here. 
Minor, D (1984). Albert Einstein on writing. J. Technical Writing and Communication 14 (1), p 13–18. [Requires subscription or purchase]. 


On brevity

As another of my new endeavours for the year, I plan to teach a short course on writing. I have been researching the subject, looking for advice, examples and counter-examples. Some of my favourites come from the archives, where I expected to find only dusty obfuscation, written in the tortuous prose many people associate with science. Instead, I came across some tiny but glittering gems. Today: Orwell, and Watson & Crick. 

George Orwell

George Orwell had advice for writersOrwell's short essay, Politics and the English Language, is partly about politics, but mostly about language. A little on the dusty side perhaps, at least to my taste, but it has two highlights. First, Orwell quotes some perverse paragraphs from the more pompous writers of the day, like this unreadable piffle from one scholar:

Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.

Second, Orwell offers six rules to improve our writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Watson and Crick

One of the most famous scientific papers of all timeOne of the most important and widely recognized scientific publications of the last century turns out to be nothing more than a one-page letter. As well as being brief, it even reads like a letter, with plain language and plenty of opinion and informed speculation. Although the results were published in full elsewhere, doubtless in more technical language, and although letters are still used in some journals, I love the unselfconscious ease with which this seismic discovery was announced. If anyone is up for the challenge, it would be fun to parody a modern press-release for this discovery.

Click the thumbnail for the full paper →

Tomorrow, I offer two more short pieces to rev up your writing. Meanwhile... do you have any favourites from the archives of science writing? Please share them! Unless they're in Latin.