How many different words do you use in a day? Take a guess. A couple hundred? A couple thousand? I couldn’t find stats on how many different words people use every day, but I did find that adults know more than 17,000 words, whereas an average five year old knows about 1,500 words. Having so many words makes language complex and nuanced, and virtually anything can be explained. But not everything explained is understood, and science in particular suffers from an overuse of jargon.
To shed light on this problem, xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe described the Saturn V moon rocket using only the one thousand most commonly used words – even the average five year old, with her 1,500 word vocabulary, should understand it! Munroe’s unique comic, “Up Goer Five,” quickly inspired scientists to explain their research using these one thousand, or ten-hundred*, most used words. A text editor was born, a tumblr was created, and the challenge was even promoted in Scientific American.
Here at Science Buffs we hope to clearly convey some pretty complex ideas that CU Boulder graduate students are working on. What better way to flex our writing muscles than by giving this challenge a try? So, we’ve asked each of our writers to explain their research in this “Ten-Hundred Word Challenge.” This is our first installment—stay tuned for more fun (and simplified) science!
*Thousand isn’t one of the most used words, so it’s not allowed!
Some animals have hair. It helps them be safe and happy. Where does it come from? What makes it grow in some places and not others? Lots of small things in the skin make it possible for hair to grow. There are some very, very tiny things that change those small things, and that can change how hair grows. I take away some of the very, very tiny things to see what happens to hair growing on little animals. I also put in more of the very, very tiny things than there were before to see what happens. Sometimes hair grows the wrong way or in places where it shouldn’t. Then I try to find out which of the small things are changed by the tiny things that make hair grow in weird ways. Maybe we can figure out how to give people without hair their hair back. Probably not.
Mammals have hair to keep them warm, camouflage them, and to help them find a mate. I study how a small class of RNAs, microRNAs, affects hair follicle development in mice. microRNAs can change the levels of some proteins. By knocking-out or over-expressing microRNAs, we can determine which proteins they influence. This is helping us to better understand how hair follicles develop, and could lead to therapeutics for male-patterned baldness or alopecia (but probably not!).
Humans use a lot of power. Usually we get this power from long dead leaves and animals deep in the ground. We drive cars powered by water-like dead stuff. We burn wood-like and air-like dead stuff to keep our houses warm. But in the coming years we need new ways of getting power. The sun has a lot of power, so much that we could never use it all. We are getting better at turning sun power into power used by humans, but we still aren’t very good at storing this power. That’s where my studies come in. I want to take sun power and turn it into power that can be easily stored and then used by humans. How do I do this? I make tiny bits of rock too small for you to see, but these rocks can turn the sun’s light into power. Then, the power is passed from the tiny rocks to a tiny soft thing I have stuck to the rocks. This tiny soft thing is really good at turning power into air-like stuff that can be bottled up and burned later for human power. In order to get the most power possible I need to know how the power gets passed from the tiny rocks to the tiny soft things. I do know that when the power gets passed not all of it makes it, just like if you tried to pass a cup of water to your friend using only your hands. So, I change the tiny rocks a little and then use really really really short bursts of light to look at how the power is passed. If more power gets passed, that is great! If not, I try again.
Sources of renewable energy, rather than fossil fuels, are necessary to meet the ever-increasing energy demands of our world. Solar panels efficiently turn sunlight into electricity, but electricity must be either used right away or stored for later use. However, storing electricity is limited to batteries, which lose energy over time and currently cannot be used for large-scale transportation. Solar fuels may be a more efficient way of harvesting solar energy because they directly store energy from the sun in a fuel, like hydrogen gas. I study a biomimetic solar fuel-producing system composed of nanocrystals (the light absorber) and an enzyme that can efficiently make hydrogen gas from water. Using ultrafast time-resolved spectroscopy I study the fundamental properties and processes of this system that determine the efficiency of solar fuel production.
We want to know more about small bad things that make people sick. The small bad things that I study get into the small pieces of your body, and can make you sick or sometimes even dead. But some people are different: better at fighting these small bad things. They don’t let the small bad things inside them, so they don’t get sick or die. The small bad things need to be inside people to live, so only the small bad things that change in small ways can live and grow. Sometimes when they change, the small bad things can get inside even these people who are better at fighting, and make more people sick. We want to know how the small bad things change to get inside more people. We also want to know about the small bad things in animals. Can the small bad things in animals change so much that they can get inside humans, too? We care about this because we don’t want to be sick, and small bad things from animals could make us very, very sick.
Viruses evolve quickly in order to expand their host range. Of most concern to us is the potential for zoonotic transmissions, or transmissions of viruses from animal hosts to humans. I study how adaptation to new hosts occurs in the genes encoding proteins allowing for viral entry into cells. I am also interested in how the host adapts to evade infection by new, fitter viruses. This back-and-forth adaptation leads to a host-virus arms race that can ultimately determine the population dynamics of infection.