I love most things xkcd, but beyond a doubt, the Up-Goer Five might be one of the best things to happen to science in a long time. Okay, it’s not quite the Higgs boson, but this comic has started a minor revolution in terms of making science available to the masses. The Up-Goer Five is a description of the Saturn V rocket, which, according to Wikipedia, “is the only launch vehicle to transport human beings beyond low Earth orbit.” The catch is that this blueprint only uses the thousand most commonly used English words.
The comic inspired a text editor based on the same premise, and as Scientific American notes, the scientific community has taken very well to it. For example, let’s look at a description of that pesky Higgs boson and field: “in this field, some things move really easily, and others have a lot of trouble. The harder it is for one of these tiny things to move through the field, then, the heavier that thing is.” And there you go, possibly the most important discovery ever in particle physics.
Granted, limiting oneself to the thousand most common words is a bit of a stretch, but the concept of re-explaining things without the most complex terms is a great thing for science. It takes the things that have become famous benchmarks of complication — rocket science, brain surgery, quantum mechanics — and lets everyone into the party. Things like the Up-Goer Five or the Explain Like I’m Five subreddit bring people together, making specialists feel less like aliens among non-specialists.
Knowledge is important, and it’s getting harder and harder to keep up. The Internet helps make things available, but there’s a huge difference between being available and being accessible. I hope this trend catches on, and maybe one day I can understand the basics of economics.
We really have to be careful about oversimplifying, of course. Sometimes, complicated lingo is an unavoidable necessity, and in the field in question, it actually makes their lives easier. Pushed too far, it becomes Newspeak, and then levels of radioactivity are measured in sunshine units. Too much simplification or generalization is as uninviting as too little.
I hope that we can find a balance. Hell, I hope that I can find a balance. This post lights up that text editor like combusting oxygen. I mean, burning breathing-type air. There’s still a long way to go — I will not go to space today.