Posts Tagged ‘language’

When the audience doesn’t sit still

In February 2017 on February 23, 2017 at 7:19 pm

Image thanks to military health/flickr via Creative Commons 

Have you ever tried to communicate science to an aggressive 23-year old man who just wants to go home and pretend it’s all not happening?

What about to a 35 year old mother of a baby and a toddler, all three of whom can’t stop crying?

Or a 16 year old exchange student, who is incredibly shy and speaks English as a second language?

Perhaps yelling through a door, to a confused, possibly drugged teenager who is shut in a room to protect the wellbeing of others in her vicinity?

Every night the hospital emergency rooms across Australia fill to the brim with worried, angry, over-stretched, poorly-slept parents and their children.

The children may be vomiting, bleeding, hurting, unconscious or even dying.

The nurses and doctors triage the children according to their needs and the resources currently available.

In just minutes, the professionals make snap assessments on the patients and their parents, and then deliver complex medical information tailored to their needs and demands. It requires the hospital staff to decide:

  • How receptive are these people to being told what to do by an “expert’?
  • What is the level of education  – will they understand if I use terms like “abdomen” or “cardiovascular”?
  • What do they value in this interaction – information? guidance? free drugs? …or just somebody to listen to their problems?
  • Can I make assumptions based on my previous interactions with this family?
  • How should I best communicate with these people – talking? brochures? handwritten diagrams? through an interpreter?
  • What level of detail should I present – am I just trying to prove I’m the one in charge, or will this information be useful and applicable by the parents? Do they even care about the ‘why’?

Knowing and pitching information just right for audience is a continual challenge for those working in science communication. And emergency room personal do it damned well.


Rediscovering gymnastics

In November 2014 on November 14, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Kirsti Gymnast

Kirsti: Recently I competed in a veterans gymnastics competition (and secured a gold medal, might I add! – Sarah).

I’m 39, and I was the oldest in my age category (31-40 years). With moral support provided by a 42-year old fellow competitor and friend, I was amazed to arrive and then meet the oldest competitor, a man of 71 years! This fellow was still doing some impressive tumbling and vaulting, a result of his training in his garage in the Flinders Ranges (far from any organised gymnastics venue).

It was a fascinating weekend. For one thing, I discovered that at least six of us 30 competitors were scientists! I also learnt that the origin of the word for gymnastics is the same as that of gymnosperms (conifers and pines that have naked seeds). ‘Gymnos’ in ancient Greek means ‘naked’. The men of those times trained and competed in gymnastic exercise completely naked. They believed that coordination of the mind and body was enhanced by physical development. Gymnastics was as important in their education as music and art.

At this point I might add that whilst my friend and I did not take the ultimate step in clothing removal for our competition, we did strip down to bare bones (see a sample of our outfits by clicking here).

Most people these days regard gymnastics as something only young people do. This is partly with good reason – sports scientists agree that gymnastics is hard! In fact, it has recently been listed as the hardest sport in the world! It demands skill and agility, but also physical strength, flexibility, power, coordination, grace, balance and control of your body. It requires and develops good vestibular and proprioception sensing, two senses that are frequently forgotten beyond the early years of life.

This Sports Science video analysing the balance, spatial awareness and speed of gymnasts at a recent competition gives you an idea of the complexities involved in high level gymnastics. The accuracy and precision displayed by these women in the execution of their routines is astounding. Enviable!

I didn’t quite get this fancy when I competed. But whilst training it became clear that I had retained a substantial amount of technique and muscle memory from my childhood and early adult gymnastics and dancing careers. The neural pathways were still there! I realised that to start from scratch in gymnastics as an adult must be daunting and very intimidating.

I’m grateful to gymnastics for giving me an awareness of my body – of the biomechanics of my core and limbs – that will hopefully persist into old age.

I know that as I get on in years my muscle fibres will decrease in number and size, and new muscle fibres will be generated at a slower rate than when I was a teen. But I fully intend to reap the physical and cognitive benefits of gymnastics. With persistence and continuous exercise, I plan to continue gymnastics into my 60’s. It’ll be fun, a challenge and might even have an impact on my life expectancy.

More gym, for longer. Sounds good to me.

[image thanks to uwoshkosh on flickr]

Feelings. And the F-bomb.

In November 2014 on November 12, 2014 at 2:20 pm

F bomb

Sarah: How does hearing reports on climate change make you feel?

Preparing school lunches this morning, I listened to a radio interview with conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy. Speaking to journalist Fran Kelly, Lovejoy was careful to present an urgent and yet optimistic view that attendees as the G20 Leaders’ Summit should be strongly considering a global biodiversity agenda as a way to support economies and mitigate climate change.

I agree with him. But the report made me anxious.

Not because I think he’s wrong. I know many details of the science of climate change. There is undeniable evidence that our Earth is warming, that atmospheric gases like carbon dioxide are trapping heat and that human activities are driving this process.

The problem is I don’t feel like I’m doing anything about this which will make a difference.

I look at my ceiling lights and admonish myself for still not finding time to change them to lower wattage versions. I know we should be walking to school more, and minimising the use of our car (which would ideally be smaller).

In separate but related worries, I agonise over the tins of tuna I buy and whether the label ‘line-caught’ actually means anything.

As a consumer, is it within my control to have an impact on climate change? On rainforest destruction? On reducing fish stocks?

I feel like it’s not. It’s not a good feeling.

And it’s not just me. Scientists working directly in the field have been reported to experience negative emotions associated with their expertise. Madeleine Thomas reported recently,

From depression to substance abuse to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, growing bodies of research in the relatively new field of psychology of global warming suggest that climate change will take a pretty heavy toll on the human psyche as storms become more destructive and droughts more prolonged. For your everyday environmentalist, the emotional stress suffered by a rapidly changing Earth can result in some pretty substantial anxieties.

In discussing possible solutions to this problem for scientists, Thomas wrote of meditation, therapy and the creation of proper boundaries between work and personal life.

And the F-word.

Quoting fellow writer Brentin Mock, Thomas said:

[Mock] argues that scientists should start dropping F bombs.

“Forgive my language here, but if scientists are looking for a clearer language to express the urgency of climate change, there’s no clearer word that expresses that urgency than FUCK,” Mock writes. “We need scientists to speak more of these non-hard science truths, no matter how inconvenient or how dirty.”

If Lovejoy had dropped the F-bomb on my radio this morning would it have made a difference? It certainly would have attracted attention. I may have spat my coffee everywhere, for a start. I think the ABC would have received complaints, other media outlets may have reported on the interview and it might have received global attention.

Is it time for scientists to pull back a bit on presenting evidence, and start presenting their feelings?

[image thanks to Nathan Rupert on flickr]

What’s in a name?

In June 2014 on June 24, 2014 at 9:03 am

Kirsti Goose bumps LaT1NaSo

Kirsti: Since beholding the great sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia I posted on a few weeks back, I’ve acquired a bit of a morbid interest in the technical or medical names of common afflictions.

There are a plethora of fabulous and mind bending names for every day behaviours and conditions that just don’t get used enough. Although I teach science students to use plain and simple English when explaining technical content, in the age of rapid modification of our vocabulary, I’m also big fan of keeping alive those crazy technical words that might otherwise only be used on a medical diagnostic chart.

You might know more of these words than you think. So I’m going to give you a little quiz. See how many of the words below you know in plain English, or in kid-english (“OUCH that reeeaaaallly hurts MUUUUMMM”!). Answers are waaay down the bottom.

  1. Cutis anserine
  2. Myocardial infarction
  3. Periodontitis
  4. Borborygmi
  5. Xerostomia
  6. Pruritus ani
  7. Hallux abducto valgus
  8. Rhinotillexomania

If, like the majority of us, you forgot what a brain freeze was called perhaps as soon as one hour after reading that blog post, you’re in luck. I found some cool tips on how to remember words. It can be as easy as using those words in the 30 minutes following learning them.

So go now and call someone – I challenge you to drop in one or two of the words above!

[image thanks to Roberto Gomez on Flickr]




Cutis anserine = goose bumps

Myocardial infarction = heart attack

Periodontitis = gum disease

Borborygmi = rumbly tummy

Xerostomia = dry mouth

Pruritus ani = itchy bum

Hallux abducto valgus = bunion

Rhinotillexomania = nose picking

Getting active

In April 2014 on April 14, 2014 at 8:00 am

Kirsti Active voice Steven Hromnak

Sarah: A few days ago, I wrote a post on the peculiarities of verb tenses and personal pronouns in writing about science. I should have prefaced the article with the disclaimer that I have not actually published anything in the pure sciences for many years. I’m delighted that the more in-touch-with-real-science Kirsti has now written a response. 

Kirsti: The tradition of writing in passive voice, or in the third person, as a scientist is still as pervasive as stereotypes of scientists themselves.  Most scientists might still say that a sentence like this:

All stems greater than 10 cm DBH were sampled along the 100 m transect,

is more correct than:

We sampled all stems greater than 10 cm DBH in the 100 m transect.

But things are changing.

Many journals – including high impact journals like Nature – encourage authors to write in the active voice because they suggest that,

“readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly. We have also found that use of several adjectives to qualify one noun in highly technical language can be confusing to readers.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Using active voice for scientific publications not only saves space and allows more articles to be published per issue, but it infers accountability. Who did the research? WE did the research. WE (the authors) do the stuff; design the study, collect the data, analyse and interpret the results, write the paper. Other people with specific expertise contribute too, and if significant enough, attributing an action to someone should occur in the paper too.

For example, in a results section, using active voice makes distinctions about who actually did specific parts of the work, like this:

We oven-dried (at 80oC for 50 mins) all ant samples, and Pacific Carbon Laboratories analysed stable isotopes 13C and 15N.

If those results were written in the third person, it might read something like this:

All ant samples were dried and weighed (at 80oC for 50 mins), and 13C and 15N were analysed for all individual ants.

This second example has no important attribution to who actually DID the stuff. Say the isotope analysis went wrong? You don’t know who to blame in the second sentence!

Sarah’s post about writing styles in science really piqued my interest, partly because I have been teaching bits of science writing at Monash University for the past 6 years. Here, we teach to write in the active voice. We critique examples in the literature of passive versus active voice, and active always comes out on top. We also review many of the journals’ instructions, which are now moving toward a requirement of active voice.

But I hadn’t really ever thought about it from a mental health perspective.

I’m really interested in reading Sarah’s third person perspective. My head tells me I won’t like it, but my heart totally understands the need to separate oneself from difficult concepts. Kind of telling yourself “it wasn’t really me there, and if I write about it like it was someone else maybe I’ll see things differently……”

Therapy. By writing.

I totally get that.

[image thanks to Steven Hromnik on flickr]

It was written. I write. She wrote.

In April 2014 on April 10, 2014 at 8:44 am


Sarah: Classically-trained scientists communicate in a very particular way. When writing articles for professional publications they are taught to always remove any sense of ‘personhood’ from their descriptions of how experiments are conducted, and the passive tense is usually applied.

Hence, rather than write,

I used a microscope to count the skin cells.

The perfect scientist would say,

Skin cells were counted using a microscope.

It’s indirect, apparently no actual person was involved, and in long sentences it can get messy. But – for historical reasons – it’s just the way things are done in science. It’s rather fitting I guess, given that science is supposed to be removed from any subjective influence.

It’s because of this requirement for a very specific and removed style of language that many scientists find it hard work to communicate through platforms other than their specialist journals. For example, creating enticing and punchy articles for blogs and newspapers can be nigh on impossible without the use of personal pronouns – I, we, she, he, they – and the active forms of verbs. This is something I’ve had to think about quite a bit in writing posts for this blog, as even now habit can lead me to using the passive voice on occasion.

But it turns out there are also implications according to whether one writes using the first or the third person i.e. I versus he or she. This I learnt through reading a fascinating article by Jane Turner Goldsmith: entitled The Psychology of Writing, it appeared in the March 2014 edition of Southern Write, the quarterly magazine of the SA Writers Centre.

Jane says,

“It matters who is telling the story and how it is told. We know this matters to a reader of course, but it turns out to also matter to the writer – from the point of view of mental health.”

And then,

“Writers who use the third person are also less vulnerable psychologically than their counterparts who write in the first person. It makes sense – there is more psychological vulnerability in that exposed first person voice, commonly (but not always) employed by poets, than there is in the more distanced third person point of view. Some kind of mastery over difficult or traumatic emotions is thought to result from the distancing.”

As someone who has been writing daily or weekly blog posts in the first person for the past 20 months or so, this struck a chord. Writing from the perspective of ‘I’ often feels heavily self-indulgent, and can be especially difficult when writing about very personal matters.

Perhaps it could be time to move to the third person to explore some aspects of the science in my life. Could this be my first inkling of a foray into narrative or creative writing? With science in it, of course*.

*Don’t panic, I despise science fiction

[image thanks to Jorel on flickr]




From rocks to vegetables

In March 2014 on March 24, 2014 at 11:56 am


Sarah: Today I’m delighted to present a guest post from scientist and gastronome Dr Geoff Hudson.

From rocks to vegetables

I like a bit of order in my life.

Perhaps this is why I find comfort in the natural processes that I have observed through a career as a geologist in mineral exploration, an education and information manager in the mineral and petroleum industry, and more recently as an importer and cultivator of Italian vegetable seeds.

I love the predictable morphology and chemistry of crystals that have formed in a 1000-degree magma, or in solid state in metamorphic rocks as a result of low temperatures and pressure. Each mineral is unique in its crystal form and chemical composition, with some – such as diamond and graphite – having identical chemical composition but very different formation temperatures and pressures.

I also take comfort in the observation and interpretation of ancient rock formations, confident in the in the knowledge that – with few exceptions – they were formed by the same processes we see operating around us today. The cross bedding in a sandstone that immediately indicates that wind or water borne sedimentary processes were in play. The hexagonal cooling and contraction cracks of columnar basalt, indicating its past surface, or near surface, extrusion and rapid cooling.

When I transitioned from a career in geology to one based around vegetables, food culture and the Italian language I found surprising elements in common.

For example, the Romanesco Cauliflower (as shown above) is a highly attractive pale green vegetable with its inflorescence approximating natural fractals, and the number of spirals reflecting the Fibonacci ratio.

I also just love the systematics of the way Italians name their families of vegetables. Two good examples are:

    • Zucca (pumpkin, picked at full maturity), Zucchetta (squash, picked when not yet mature), and Zucchino (picked when juvenile);
    • Sedano (celery), Sedano di monti (mountain celery or Lovage in English) and Sedano rapa (celery root or celeriac in English).

Predictability and rules apply equally well to both geology and botany, and reflect the ways that humans understand, describe and interact with elements of their natural world.

[image of a romanesco cauliflower thanks to dailyfood on flickr]

Day 225. Totes loving social media, LOL

In March 2013 on March 25, 2013 at 9:29 pm


Has social media changed the way you write? Or even the way you read and retain information?

If you’re a prolific user like me, the answers are probably YES and OMG, YES.

Simon Kuper at the Financial Times published a great article this week How social media improved writing.

He suggests,

“texts, blogs, emails and Facebook posts are infecting other kinds of writing, and mostly for the good. They are making journalism, books and business communications more conversational.”

Furthermore, a recent academic publication Major Memory for Microblogs even suggests that information presented in a casual style of writing is more likely to remembered than that presented more formally, such as sentences from books or traditional media.

Writing my blog post a couple of days ago, I found myself using French -> English translation rather than French to English translation. I looked at the words, actually thought to myself

“I really should change that, it’s not proper”.

But I actually liked the sense of movement the arrow conveyed. So it stayed.

Damn convention! Language is for the people.

[image thanks to Enokson on flickr]

Day 220. Language

In March 2013 on March 21, 2013 at 9:49 am


When I visit my regular doctor, we have plenty of in-depth discussions about medicine, science, and other complex stuff that we both have a background and an interest in.

We speak the same language. We know this through experience and asking questions of each other.

When I visit a different doctor – which happens when the main guy is booked up – it’s interesting to see how the conversations go.

Many doctors assume I have no expert knowledge in the field, and talk to me accordingly. I think this is a reasonable thing to do.

Sometimes, I stop them and insert a quick,

“I have a background in immunology, I understand this stuff”

so we can take the conversation a little further, and I can get a better feel for the way they are thinking about my symptoms, or those of my children.

Occasionally I strike a doctor who uses highly specific medical language for the entirety of the consultation. I recall one such appointment last winter; as one example, the guy listened to my lungs and then told me he couldn’t hear any crepitations, so he didn’t think my virus had spread to my lungs.

Crepitations! It means crackly or popping sounds. I knew this. But surely it can’t be expected that most patients would understand this lingo.

I think doctors need to think of themselves as science communicators too. Good communication surely leads to better compliance (i.e. doing what you are advised to do), and hence better health outcomes.

[image thanks to aeu04117 on flickr]

Day 179. Foot in the door

In february 2013 on February 7, 2013 at 2:48 pm


Don’t panic, but I’m about to present some hardcore science.

It’s the title of my PhD. Ready? Here it goes:

Myeloid antigen presenting cells populations in the murine uterus.

If you’re struggling to make sense of it, you’re not alone. Indeed, the language is pretty close to meaningless for anyone other than myself, my supervisor and the other students working with me at the time.

How about if I wrote it this way:

As far as things growing in her uterus goes, how does a female work out what is dangerous – like germs, or cancer – and what is safe, like a baby? 

Hopefully that makes much more sense.

Now that you get the general idea of what my research involved, you could ask me more questions if you were interested in more details. This is called the ‘foot in the door’ technique, as explained in more detail by Melanie Tannenbaum in her blog post for the Persuading the Unpersuadable session at the recent Science Online conference.

It basically boils down to this: if you want to explain complicated stuff, don’t scare your audience off with the full force of the matter in the first mouthful. Use everyday language and phrases, and then work up to more detail if people ask for it.

This morning I asked scientists on twitter to share the subjects of their PhDs too: a description of their work using every day terms, and then the formal scientific name of the project.  Here’s what they came up with:


Foot in the door: Cholesterol is important for HIV because it helps the virus tell the cells to prepare for infection

Actual title: The Role of cellular Lipids in HIV-1 replication


Foot-in-the-door: We are looking at how antioxidants & free radicals are involved in involuntary weight loss in cancer patients, and how fish oil and enzyme inhibitors may be able to overcome these processes, and improve quality of life for cancer patients.

Actual title: The role of xanthine oxidoreductase & antioxidants in skeletal muscle degeneration in cancer-induced cachexia


Foot in the door: Using emerging human genome project data, I mapped the breakpoints of chromosome translocations in leukemia patients; identifying the genes at the breakpoints gives insights into molecular mechanisms of leukemia.

Actual title: Molecular characterisation of translocations involving chromosome band 1p36 in acute myeloid leukemia.


Foot in the door: Discovering molecular mechanisms of key proteins controlling breast cancer spread provides better understanding of the molecular basis of the disease, and forms the basis for better prognostics and drug development.

Actual title: Structure-Fubction Relationships in Plasminogen Activator Inhibitor Type 2 (PAI-2)

[image thanks to marcusrg on flickr]