Inspired by this XKCD Up-Goer Five comic (and aided by this Up-Goer Five text-editor), we present two cases of complicated science made… simpler.

Science Buffs’ writers Zach Decker and Willow Reed describe their research only using the 1,000 most common English words.



Simple Explanation:

When cars burn fire-water or when power buildings burn special rocks, air is made that has lots of stuff in it. Some of that stuff makes people and animals sick. This bad air can stick to the surface of tiny (too tiny to see) balls of rock that are also in the air. These tiny balls of rock hold the same stuff people put in pools to keep them clean. On the rock, at night, the bad air picks up the pool cleaning stuff to make a new kind of bad air. When the sun rises it burns the new bad air to make really really bad air! No one really knows where all of the really bad air is because it is see-through. So, we are going to create a special light machine that can see it. Our machine eats air and then shoots it with a special kind of light. The special light shows us how the air shakes. We know how the really bad air shakes, so we only look at that special shake and count how much of the air shakes that way. That is how we know how much of the really bad air there is. Once we build our light machine, we will put it on a sky-boat and travel over forest fires to see if there is any really bad air in the smoke (there probably will be).

Not as simple explanation:

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a critical component of air pollution and is mainly emitted by anthropogenic sources like cars and coal power plants. After a string of chemical reactions, and some surface reactions on chlorine-containing particulate matter suspended in the air, NO2 can eventually become nitryl chloride (ClNO2). Once the ClNO2 is formed it is broken apart by sunlight to make chlorine radicals, which are incredibly reactive! Chlorine radicals can enhance ozone production in the troposphere, the part of our atmosphere that we breath, and thus negatively affect human health. So, we really care about where and why ClNO2 is formed.

Unfortunately, there is only one type of instrument, an iodine chemical ionization mass spectrometer, that can detect and measure ClNO2. This instrument is great, but it’s not easy to take out of the lab, which means we don’t know all that much about ClNO2 in our atmosphere (the first measurement was taken only 10 years ago). My PhD research will focus on building a new instrument to measure ClNO2, and other types of chlorine containing molecules. This instrument will probe the unique vibrations of different molecules using a method known as mid-infrared spectroscopy. Since every molecule vibrates in a very specific way this measurement is like taking fingerprints of the air! Our spectrometer’s first mission will be to fly in a research aircraft to sample forest fire smoke plumes to help determine the amount and the origin of many chlorine species that arise in forest fires. Since our spectrometer will be much more portable, we can take it to many more places, and perhaps even leave it in an area to measure chlorine-containing molecules long term. Hopefully we will eventually find out just how abundant ClNO2 is across the globe, and thus better understand the quantity of chlorine radicals being formed!

By Zach Decker


Simple Explanation:

Sun bursts are big forces that light at all light waves and colors. However, it is not very well known how much of this Big Force Light reaches into the Far Short Waves part of All Light Waves. My study asks if the reach of this Big Force light is changed by the biggest type of Sun bursts. I look at the return of the Far Short Light Waves. This allows us to get a small look at how much force falls back down onto the Sun (really looking at the top of the Sun) and how it can change the Sun as a whole.

Scientific Explanation:

Solar flares are energetic events that radiate at all wavelengths. However, the distribution of this energy over all wavelengths is not well known, such as how much a solar flare radiates at the ultraviolet range versus radio range. My research is looking into whether X-class flares, the largest flare class, affects the spectral distribution in the Far Ultraviolet (FUV) irradiance spectrum. In particular, I look at the response of the FUV continuum. To do this, I look at scans of the irradiance from before and after the peak of the flare, and create a ratio that shows how much energy fell back down onto the surface. This allows us to get a small glimpse of how much energy falls back down onto the Sun (specifically the chromosphere, which is the layer between the surface of the sun and its outer atmosphere) and how that energy affects the Sun itself.

By Willow Reed

Interested in writing your own ten-hundred word challenge? Contact us at or reach out on Twitter @ScienceBuffs or Facebook.

Posted by Science Buffs

A CU Boulder STEM Blog

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