Explaining Your Research

by Jenn Robinson

One of these days, I’d like to write a book called Explaining Your Research: A practical field guide.  It would include chapters on the various situations in which a scientist might find him- or herself where he or she might be required to explain about his or her research.  Since I am a physicist, I would likely focus on explaining physics concepts, and trying to communicate physics research in such situations.  Then, I would probably share anecdotes.

Of course, the bulk of the book would come from the fact that different situations require different explanations.  I mean, sure, you can corner a relative at a family holiday and bore them to tears for hours trying to explain the nuances of quantum mechanics, for example, but what about the well-meaning casual acquaintance?  Or the person who sets up his mat next to yours in yoga class?  How do you give an “elevator pitch” style summary of a subject that requires years of introductory coursework to even understand?

No, I haven’t actually answered all these questions myself, although I have learned a lot of it.  For example, avoid the word “quantum” in conversations at yoga studios.  Trust me.  Also, know your audience.  I happen to know that my mother loves to Google and has basically done her own online research of every topic I’ve mentioned in relation to my work, so I can get into some pretty deep topics with her.  She may not understand all of it, but she enjoys learning what she can.  Other relatives, even if they have more formal education, haven’t brushed up on as much of the current events or jargon of my field, so I start with the basics and hone down to a level that seems slightly uncomfortable.  That way, they feel exposed to something new, without feeling completely agape.

It also helps to admit that a lot of physics, especially experimental physics, is kind of an art.  I mean, I can explain the theoretical mechanism behind how a laser works, but when thinking about how my laser actually works, I tend to resort to voodoo and magic.  People who work with computers or cars understand this because computers and cars have some of the same idiosyncrasies.  Or cooking.  One person making a recipe can have a completely different result than another.  It’s about finesse.

Speaking of “finesse,” another thing to remember is that certain words mean something different in science than they do to the general public.  This gets scientists in trouble when they try to interact with politicians or the media because words like “uncertainty” or “error” mean something specific and not “we got it wrong,” which is what non-scientists tend to understand from them [this has a good table of other examples].  By recognizing this, scientists should try to use words in the way the layperson will understand them, rather than trying to make that person understand it the scientific way.  That way, semantics won’t hold back a conversation that is already difficult to understand.