I’m a bit late jumping on this bandwagon, but here is my first attempt to explain my research simply. The explanation behind this was a cartoon from the well-known web comic xkcd, describing the Saturn V moon rocket using only the ten hundred most commonly used words. It has since become something of a web phenomenon, especially amongst scientists (for example look up the #upgoer5 hashtag on twitter). To give due credit, I put this together using the text editor handily made available by Theo Sanderson.
I study the way ice and water are changing at the top of the world. My work uses a very big computer which makes lots of attempts to tell us what the world will be like in one or two hundred years at the top of the world. We want to know how much ice there will be, how much ice will turn into water and how warm the air will get and how quickly this will all happen so that we can be ready for changes in the water around the land.
One of the other things I have been working on is a picture of the ice in the place called green land, which is a piece of land near the top of the world. Every day this picture is changed to show how much ice has fallen from the sky and how much ice has changed into water.
The idea of this blog is to describe some of the things I have been working on to a non-technical audience (I’m envisioning my grandmother here – though I suspect my parents are actually the only people who read this blog). Some of the things I work on are (I hope) potentially important and useful data products for business, planners and public alike, other things are pure research. In any case much of what I do is funded directly or indirectly by people who pay taxes so I feel it is equally important that the people who pay for it also understand it. This is not always as straightforward as I hope it is and in this post I explore one of the difficulties I have in communicating my science.
Some years ago, I was having a hair cut and chatting to the hairdresser (as you do), when she asked me what I did for a living. I explained I was studying for a PhD in glaciology. Bearing in mind I hadn’t the least idea what PhD actually was until I became a student myself, I then said that I basically studied how glaciers moved (close enough). Her next question completely stumped me.
‘What’s a glacier?’
I had taken for granted that she would know what a glacier is but as I later realised, there is no reason that she would or should. She had never visited the alps or gone skiing or hiking in the mountains (the most obvious way to come into contact with glaciers) and she was certainly not a budding geography student.
Glaciers never featured in my school curriculum, so why would they have done in hers? I had immediately fallen over one aspect of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where you assume others have an equivalent understanding of the same things you do. The other, more well known aspect of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is illusory superiority, where individuals commonly rate their intelligence, skills etc as above average.
I still find it difficult to know what kind of level to aim for when discussing my work. I truly believe everyone should be able to understand the principles and the concepts behind what I do and if it sounds too complex to understand then I am not communicating it well enough. At the same time I have to recognise that a 4 year degree, a 1 year masters and a 3 and a half year PhD plus 4 years of post-doc work have inevitably shaped my thinking and the ‘stuff what I know’; my (non-technical) audience does not have that advantage.
My greatest fear is that I am patronising or boring the people I am talking to and repeating tired or obvious metaphors. The interest with which people usually react when I explain what I do for a living suggests that there is a great latent interest in climate and glaciers but I often then feel hamstrung about going further than a few superficial comments.
Navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of science communication is a major reason I started this blog, so I am posting this shortish piece now by way of an explanation and an apology in advance for when I get it wrong.
As for the answer I finally gave to the inquisitive hairdresser? Well a glacier is like a very slow moving frozen river. Snow falls at the top is pressed down by more snow falling on top and becomes ice, this very very slowly starts to flow downhill like very slow moving water until it gets to the end of the glacier where it melts.
These days of course, with web browsers on most phones, the answer is obvious, wikipedia it…