Small Words, Big Ideas: Up Goer Five

Diagram of the Sun-Earth connection with jargony labels rewritten in simple terms

Dr. Sarah Gibson of the PUNCH mission discusses her complex science using, in her words, “small words, big ideas.”

Every community of practice evolves its own vocabulary, and scientists and science communicators often rib themselves for how jargony STEM can be. In the late 1970’s, tech film narrator Bud Haggert created the affectionately cheeky “Turbo Encabulator“, using plausible but made-up jargon to make this classic engineering sketch incomprehensible. Engineers have delighted in recreating and updating it since, simulating how jargon can get in the way of understanding. 

Nearly 40 years later, cartoonist and former NASA engineer Randall Munroe took the opposite approach in his xkcd webcomic “Up Goer Five“. He humorously explained the Saturn V Rocket in quite literally the simplest of terms: the 1,000 most common English words. Scientists enjoyed the idea so much that a number of conferences began to have “Up Goer Five Challenges.” 

At the annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference, the Up Goer Five Challenge: Making Big Ideas Simpler by Talking About Them in Words We Use a Lot asks speakers to present short scientific talks using the same thousand words


For example, in my Up Goer for this year I wanted to translate the process of how auroras form. It’s been described to me Encabulator-style as “when particles from the solar wind or space weather events like coronal mass ejections impact the planetary magnetosphere, if Bz is south such that reconnection can occur, such reactions drive magnetohydrodynamic processes, including convection and nightside reconnection, which in turn trigger ionospheric precipitation.” Pretty overwhelming for a history major!

But with Up Goer, Dr. Liz and I had the chance to distill the story down to the basics: 


Boiling down technical text to its simplest form fundamentally requires asking two questions: “in broad strokes, what is the thing I want to talk about?” and “how does my audience most often interact with the concept I want to describe?” For example, “magnet” is not one of the 1,000 most common English words. So how can we describe the Earth’s magnetosphere? 

What is a magnet? How might you describe it to a young student? You might hold up a familiar chunk of magnetized iron—to a child, a special rock. You might also show that when two of these rocks are near one another, if they face one way they attract one another, and the other way they repel one another. Therefore, magnetism can be described Up Goer style as “the force you find in those cool rocks that are drawn to one another on one side and push each other away on the other side.” And a magnetosphere is a shield made of that force, or to go a sci-fi route, a “force field.”

Creating an Up Goer is not an easy task, though; the vocabulary list is limited, and like many areas of science itself, requires a lot of trial and error! Participant Dr. Robert Leamon said of the creative process, “I’d say that the hardest part was making sure I didn’t say any [non-Up Goer] words….I do always try to tell a story, and engage the audience with (non-rhetorical) questions.” While most participants read from a script, he took on the extra challenge of speaking off the cuff this year, so remembering to keep his wording about the Sun’s “hot flashes” simple was an extra priority. 

Slide titled "When Will the Sun Have Hot Flashes in the Next (Up Goer) Five or So Years?"

Opening slide by Dr. Robert Leamon, describing coronal mass ejections at solar maximum.

In the end, however, when you participate in Up Goer you not only whittle down to the essence of your science, you find ways to more easily communicate it with others. Since learning the language of expertise can be both a rite of passage and a barrier to entry, collaborating means finding ways to communicate not only with non-scientists, but with scientists from other disciplines. Up Goer provides a fun, funny way to start sharing your science, and a year-round avenue to practice simplifying language rather than content. If you are an AGU attendee, consider signing up for the Up Goer challenge in addition to your usual science session. It’s a fun exercise, and chance to explore science communication skills that are rarely taught in advanced degree programs. AGU’s Sharing Science Community, which started the AGU Up Goer session, is a fantastic resource! 

Grab some popcorn and check out these Up Goers from past years:



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