When it comes to scientific words, simple is harder than it seems

[Yes, it’s been a long time since I posted something new. One reason is that I’ve been busy preparing for a big move. You can read about it here.]

After our discussion about using dry ice with 8 year olds had died down, this year’s crop of space camp counsellors asked a question that plagues almost everyone who teaches, writes about or in any way works to share scientific information: what are the right words to use to explain difficult concepts?

Questions like that come up every year in my undergrad science ed classes and in almost every science communication workshop I’ve ever attended. And they’re hard questions to answer. The answers always depends on exactly who the audience is and on the purpose of the article, video or lesson. But the message often boils down to: Scientists and science communicators of all kinds need to cut the jargon and explain things simply.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

First, the specialized terms that usually get classified as jargon are often useful. They can sometimes offer precise meanings that make things easier to understand. Ed Yong is a science writer very skilled at explaining difficult concepts for wide audiences. He has argued that, even though getting rid of needless jargon is important, we shouldn’t act as if we need to ban complex words. Sometimes they really are the best words to use:

General readers are more than capable of understanding complex concepts, if you explain them. Explain a word once and you can often get away with using it again (although it’s still worth questioning whether you need to). If I’m writing a story about the difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, I trust that my readers will cope admirably with these unfamiliar terms if I explain them clearly from the start. If the difference isn’t core to the story, then the words aren’t important, and I leave them out.

But there’s even more to it than that: Sometimes words can seem too non-jargony.

I was reminded of this while watching a recent video from one of my favourite science communicators. Henry Reich of MinutePhysics creates fascinating and thoughtful animated explanations of physics concepts ranging from the most complex ideas in modern physics (e.g., The true science of parallel universes)  to questions that seem to be utterly simple (e.g., Why is it dark at night?). It’s a video channel that I watch enthusiastically and share widely with friends and students. And I most often use it as a great example of how something can be presented using simple language and graphics but still convey very complex ideas (I even interviewed him about that very idea for Skeptically Speaking). The one that arrived in my inbox as I was writing this is a very good example of choosing to use difficult terms but explaining them well. “How to Turn Sound Into Light” introduces and explains not only complex physics processes but also the words sonoluminescence and cavitation.

Something about last week’s video, however, struck me a bit differently. Take a look:

As you might have guessed, I’m talking about his choice to use the word jiggliness to describe the behavior of atoms and molecules in materials at different temperatures. The video opens with: “The temperature of regular stuff is basically just a measurement of the jiggliness of the atoms and molecules that make that stuff up. More jiggling, higher temperature; less jiggling, lower temperature.”

At first it just stood out for me as a more fanciful word than usual for MinutePhysics. But then I stopped and thought about it more.

On one hand, jiggliness is actually a pretty good word. In middle school, most people hear about a relationship between molecular motion and temperature, learning that the molecules in hot substances move a lot more than molecules in cool substances. This typical explanation is a bit problematic, though, because it really only works in some circumstances. In mono-atomic gases (where the material is made exclusively of single atoms) this description is pretty good: the hotter the gas, the further and faster the atoms are moving. As soon as the molecules involve more than one atom, and especially when the substance is in liquid or solid form, there is energy associated with rotation, bending and vibration within the molecule and even between individual chemical bonds inside the atom. Trying to describe all of these different types of movement, vibrations and rotations happening within and between atoms and molecules with a single word is really hard. So Henry went with jiggling. When we chatted by email about the video, this is how he explained his choice:

“I actually think it’s an excellent word to talk about temperature, because temperature really is just the jiggling of molecules, and other words like “motion” I think are too specific. I feel “motion”, for example, implies straight-line motion or motion en masse, which, while maybe applicable for a gas, doesn’t really describe thermal vibrations in a solid. And “vibrations” doesn’t really describe the free-moving molecules in a gas. So “jiggling” seemed to work best across all cases – to me it is the most honest, the “truest” word to describe the thermal movements and motions that we call temperature. In many ways it’s even better than “kinetic energy”, since an important (and oft-overlooked in simple treatments of temperature) component of kinetic energy is the vibrational and rotational modes of the molecules themselves, as well as internal energy of electronic excitations. And at least to me, “jiggling” seems to cover these as well.”

So, it’s perfect, right? It’s a very simple and non-jargony word that actually is quite accurate, perhaps more so than other terms that are usually used.

When we think about it from another perspective, though, it brings new problems of its own. A major problem with the word jiggly is that someone watching the video already has to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of temperature to see why jiggly is a good word. It only makes sense when you already know that temperature is a lot more complicated than the movement of atoms in straight lines. Without that knowledge, the word may seem too simple. Jiggly is a fun word, that we would be happy to use even with the youngest of kids. It conjures images of jello and gummy worms and Santa’s belly. And in this case, it might leave someone thinking, “I know that temperature is related to molecules moving, why doesn’t the video just say that? Why use a kids’ word like jiggling?”

Word choices always send messages to science audiences. Whenever we read or watch something, from mystery novels to documentaries, we interpret what we read and see based on our experiences – no matter what the author or creator intended. One way to think about this is by identifying the intended audience and the implied audience (usually called the intended reader and the implied reader when we’re talking about text). The intended audience is the people the creator had in mind. Often in science writing we talk about the moms, uncles and neighbours outside of science that we think about writing for.  As David Dobbs said about interviewing scientists, “Make sure, when they start talking like a scientist, to ask them how they’d explain it to your brother the plumber.”

The implied audience, though, is the other side of the coin: It’s who the reader feels like the creator had in mind. It often comes down to feeling like “Was this written or created for someone like me?” When a writer says something like “We’ve all felt at one time or another as if…” a reader will quickly get a feeling about whether they are part of the implied audience. If you’ve never felt the way the author assumes that everyone has, it can be alienating. Similarly, this is one of the reasons why jargon is dangerous. It can send equally alienating messages like “If you don’t already understand these words and ideas, then this isn’t for you.” But shying away from technical terms can also have the same effect. As Ed Yong also wrote in the piece I quoted above, “The opposite mistake to using wanton jargon is treating complicated terms like linguistic lepers, and introducing them nervously. You can see this in some writing. Words like ‘basically’ or ‘effectively’ can often mean ‘Here comes the difficult bit; stand back, I might crack out a metaphor.’”

Those choices send the wrong message to a reader. They say, “Hey, I don’t think you’ll understand this” and, even worse, “I don’t think you’ll understand the real explanation so I’ll make it clear that I’m really simplifying this for you.” It’s another way of saying, “This piece wasn’t for you.”

And here’s where jiggly gets tough. Given the topic, I suspect that the intended audience is people with basic scientific understanding, vocabulary and interest but not necessarily a deep background in these particular underlying processes, including the complicated rotations, vibrations and excitements in solid materials. This means that even though jiggly was meant as a descriptive and accurate word, it probably sounds different to many people watching it. Instead of seeing how it encapsulates several complex phenomena, it might say instead “This is really complicated, so I’m going to use a very simple word. You don’t need to worry about the details.” And even though it’s not at all what Henry had in mind, it can be just as alienating as using too complicated of a word.

There’s no good answer to this, because to be honest, I can’t even think of a word that I’d suggest instead. As Henry pointed out, motion and movement don’t quite work because they are inaccurate for all but the simplest gases. But if you don’t already understand how complicated the process is, jiggly sounds even more inaccurate and possibly off-putting. So, my intention here is not to call Henry out for using the wrong word (it’s actually a great word) but just to point out that constantly saying “Don’t use jargon” doesn’t solve the problem either. Sometimes there is a great word, that is both simple and accurate, but if it won’t mean the same thing to the audience, then it can be almost as bad as jargon.


For more on how language choices can affect readers and students in science:

Brown, B. A., & Spang, E. (2008). Double talk: Synthesizing everyday and science language in the classroom. Science Education, 92(4), 708-732.
Weinberg, A., & Wiesner, E. (2011). Understanding mathematics textbooks through reader-oriented theory. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 76(1), 49-63.


3 responses to “When it comes to scientific words, simple is harder than it seems”

  1. “Don’t use jargon” is a too simplified rule. Instead, it should be: “Adapt your language to your audience.” You don’t use the same words when teaching a beginner the basics (assuming you yourself have progressed significantly beyond the “beginner” stage) as you do when discussing the same subject with someone on the same level as you or a higher level than you.

  2. Wouldn’t Ed’s rule work in this scenario as well? First describe “jiggly” in a more detailed way, to emphasize that it’s really about all the different motions, and then use “jiggly” as a shorthand after that.

    “The temperature of regular stuff is a measurement of different types of motion of atoms and molecules that make that stuff up – not just moving around, but also vibration and rotation, so, basically “jiggliness”.”

    It’s a bit longer, but looks less frivolous, perhaps?

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