Explaining our new ideas without jargon

Jargon is any word or phrase that loses or changes its meaning when you use it with people who aren’t in your field. It can allow people with shared expertise to communicate complex ideas and concepts precisely and efficiently. But it becomes an obstacle when you want to discuss the work with someone who does not share that expertise, and often, that is the very goal of our science communication.

A few CMU grad students got together and tried to simplify their research descriptions. To make them as simple as possible, we used the rules of the XKCD Thing Explainer: using only the thousand most common English words. As the saying goes, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” While we lose some of the details and nuance in the simplified versions, the process forces us to distill, and consider new analogies for, our research topics.

Continue reading

On SIAM News: Writing for Mass Media: You’re Better Positioned than You Think

From an article workshopped by SNF and recently featured in the newsletter of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics:

Every researcher is also part writer. It’s a label that may be unfamiliar or even unwelcome to many graduate students, professors, and industry scientists. But between grants, papers, and reports to higher-ups, writing is undeniably a huge part of research.

Yet somehow, even with all that practice, the thought of writing for a mass-market magazine or news site can seem like a leap into a world so foreign that it’s unapproachable. The apparent chasm between us and a broader audience is further widened by the mathematical intensiveness of our work.

After all, what layperson wants to read about math? Thousands, it turns out, with appropriate translation, and the barriers to reaching them are lower than you might think. Over the course of my Ph.D. in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), I’ve been increasingly drawn to science writing, culminating in an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Fellowship this past summer at Scientific American. I’ve found the most daunting obstacles to be largely illusory, vanishing as soon as I was nudged into confronting them. And not only was my background not an impediment, it proved to be an unexpected boon; my mathematical training opened up otherwise impenetrable stories to me — and to thousands of readers by extension.

Check out the full piece on the SIAM website.

The most “boring” thing you’ve probably never heard of

There are parts of the world where these things have killed hundreds of people. They have names like “The Seven Ghosts” and “The Silver Dragon”. People come from all over the planet to see if they can tame these “beasts.” And yet, few have heard of them. I’m talking about “bores”—more specifically, “tidal bores.”

Continue reading

The Neuroscience of Taming the Wandering Mind

Have you ever tried sitting still and relaxed for three minutes, and focusing on a simple thing? You can focus on a familiar name, a simple image, a small nearby object, or a sensation like breathing. If other thoughts, feelings, or sensations come up, gently ignore them and return your attention to the initial thought.


A young monk meditating in the forest (Wikimedia Common)

How long are you able to focus? How many distractions come up? Kudos if you can hold the thought with no distractions for more than a few seconds. Most of us can’t. Thoughts naturally pop up in our minds, whether we like it or not. If we can slow the stream of thoughts, we can focus better (and hence be more productive). One way to do this is by practicing mindfulness.

Continue reading

Going to a Conference


The story of a graduate student’s first scientific conference

The land around the airport looked like a patchwork quilt from the plane. The square fields grew closer and more colorful as we descended. I snuck glances while filling out my customs form. It felt odd being abroad, even if it was just for a few days at a scientific conference.

Continue reading

Your Brain on Music

Are kids who play an instrument or sing smarter than everyone else? Maybe not smarter – but research shows improvements in learning and brain function with musical training. Surprisingly, just a few months makes a difference. Of course, the more years of training, the better, but researchers have measured improvements with only 1 month of musical training.

Continue reading

Robots that Ride the Elevator

Your boss tells you to deliver a package from your building’s first floor up to the fifth floor. You pick up the package from the receptionist, and to save time, take the elevator. You then press a button to call the elevator, squeeze in with other riders, push the fifth floor button, and hand the package over in no time. But would this be as easy if you were a robot?

“Courier robots” that securely and inexpensively deliver parcels are gaining popularity. Elevators are much safer than stairs, but some tasks involved in using an elevator that are easy for most people can be challenging for a robot.
Continue reading