Keeping our feet dry and safe from the big water with lots of tiny rocks!

Some ideas are really hard to understand, but it helps if we can talk about them using simple words. One of my favourite books of all time is the Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe, the cartoonist behind XKCD. In it, Munroe tries to describe scientific concepts using only the 1000 most common words in the English language. With the help of a text editor to flag any illegal words, I prepared the following summary of my PhD research, and am presenting it tomorrow in a special science education session at the online American Geophysical Union conference. If you are not attending, you can also check out my presentation here:

Here are the words that go with my pictures:

There is a very low land next to the big water. It has a lot of wind and it rains there most of the time. It is so low that it would be under water now if people didn’t build big walls around it and suck all the water out. The big water is going up and up and up, and we want to keep everyone’s feet dry so that they stay safe for a long time to come. The plan is to put lots and lots of very tiny rocks along the edge between the big water and the very low land. When there is too much wind, the big water will make huge waves. These will hurt the wall of very tiny rocks, but if we have enough very tiny rocks, the big water won’t get inside the very low land and the people will be safe. It is hard to guess where these very tiny rocks will go when we put them on the edge of the big water, because the waves move them around. We use water-counters, rock-counters, and computers to learn more about how the very tiny rocks move through the water and make better guesses about what they will do. People in many other lands are also worried about huge waves and the big water going up, so we hope that the things we learn in the very low land can help them too.

This was one of the most fun presentations I have ever made, and it changed the way I think about my research. After all, if I can’t explain what I’m doing, the dissertation I have spent five years writing will just collect dust on a bookshelf instead of contributing something useful to the world.

But perhaps even more importantly for the fulfillment of my muppet-loving childhood dreams, it meant being able to legitimately refer to “the big blue wet thing” at a Serious Scientific Conference.

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