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.

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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.
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Fantastic Beasts and the Science Behind Them

Growing up reading Harry Potter, my favorite parts of the series weren’t the coming of age stories, nor the magical spells, nor the combat and adventure. Instead I obsessed over the mythical science, potions, and creatures. I was captivated by the Harry Potter companion book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and wondered, did such fantastic creatures exist in our world?

We tend to think that all parts of the map that were once labelled “Here be dragons” are free from mysteries. True magic may not exist, but there are still beasts at the corners of the world with abilities so magical that scientists have not yet entirely figured them out. Let’s take a look at five entries in a modern-day muggle edition of Newt Scamander’s encyclopedia.

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The Mysterious Phone Tumble

Physics is full of outlandish scenarios where our basic intuitions break down. Quantum mechanics, relativity, nanoparticles…so many phenomena seem counter-intuitive, or even impossible, that it’s almost not surprising when we hear of another in some remote domain. But sometimes, physics surprises can be found right in our hands.

My favorite counter-intuitive motion can be demonstrated with an object that you likely have near you right now: a smartphone. To see it, hold your phone with the screen facing towards you and give it a light toss into the air, spinning it so the screen stays facing towards you. Make sure that if you drop it, it falls in your lap or somewhere soft.* Watch how the phone rotates in the air. Continue reading

A jumping spider leaps towards its prey – a tethered fly

Six ways a jumping spider is cooler than your cat

There’s a hairy beast out on the prowl. It spots its prey from a distance, stalks along the forest floor, and pounces with a mighty flying leap. It then proceeds to suck its prey dry.

This animal is, of course, a tiny jumping spider.

You may not be used to thinking of spiders as strategic hunters, but jumping spiders have cat-like talents, bundled in package smaller than a dime. Take a look at how these spiders make your house cat look like an amateur hunter.

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