Explaining complicated things with simple words: Simple writer challenge

Email: l.toca@pgr.reading.ac.uk & m.r.coleman@pgr.reading.ac.uk

A challenge most researchers will be familiar with is how do you explain your research to friends and family in a way that’s readily understandable to non-experts? The web comic xkcd decided to try describing the Saturn-V moon rocket (‘Up Goer Five’) using only the ten-hundred most commonly used words.

Feeling that we needed something a bit different during the Covid-19 lockdown, and inspired by our predecessors in a previous blog post, we decided to have a go at explaining our own research using the xkcd ‘simplewriter’ tool in our weekly PhD group meeting. While restricting yourself to only the ten-hundred most commonly used words seemed to make things more confusing at times, it certainly gets one thinking about what complicated words don’t need to be used… and results in some amusing explanations!

A screenshot of the xkcd “Simple Writer” tool

Devon FrancisAdvanced methods for assimilating satellite data in numerical weather prediction

When we find out how hot or cold it is outside, sometimes it is not right as sometimes it can be too hot and sometimes it can be too cold. If over lots of time it is more often hot than it is cold, or the other way around, then we have to move how much warmer we have found it to be so that we can write down how warm it actually is. We can also imagine how hot or cold it will be by thinking about how hot or cold it has been before, or how hot or cold it is on a day that is like today. But if it was hotter before but we did not notice, then we may think it is also hotter today, so we may need to change what we thought about before as well as what we think about today. Sometimes it is hard to work out why we are wrong about how warm it is today. It could be because we can not decide how warm it is or it could be because it has been too hot or cold in the past. My job is to decide why we think it is too hot or cold, so that tomorrow we can know how warm it will be!

Linda van GarderenClimate change detection and attribution of extreme events

I look at the warming of the sky, and see if that is different from what the sky was like before it was warming. The cool thing is, that we only look at those moments where the sky was attacking us. With us we are talking about humans on the ground. Any form of attack such as warm, cold, strong wind and rain is a thing. I do this by telling a story. The story helps in finding what made the attack happen, if it was the warming of the sky or maybe something else.

Max ColemanClimate response to short-lived pollutants

In the air are very small things that can hurt us if we breathe them in. However, these things can also change how warm the Earth is by catching light or sending it back to space, and also change how much it rains by changing how much cloud there is in the sky. If humans make more of these things then we will change how warm the Earth is. I study how these small things change how much cloud there is and other things, which in turn change how much light is caught or sent back to space. I do this using a computer which can pretend to be the Earth and works out how much light is caught or sent back to space by changing these things.

Mark ProsserUsing aviation meteorology to improve aircraft safety

My finish-big-school work piece is about crazy wind and sky high-lighting causing problems for flying buses. Crazy wind is already a problem for flying buses which we think will get worse with the Earth hotter than it is now (it is already hotter than before). Didn’t-see-it-coming crazy wind is especially a problem for flying buses because you can’t see into the future. So we brain people use things that big brain animals use on computer brain best guesses, but these aren’t perfect. My work piece is saying good or bad about these things by putting them on real flying buses meeting didn’t-see-coming crazy wind (things really go wrong when these two meet). Day to day I pull down guesses from big computer brain and use not friend long toothy animal to eat these guesses. Right now I am writing up a paper using over leaf and hope it will be put on many bits of paper and seen by some other brain people and liked and talked about.

Jake BlandThe control of cloud and moisture on extratropical cyclone evolution

People use computers to tell them if there will be rain, sun, clouds, or storms in the future, and if it will be hot or cold. To be right about these things the computers need to know about how hot the sky is and how much water is in it, among other things. We get this information by looking with machines on earth, putting machines into the sky, or putting machines in space and telling them to look down at the sky.

You can think of the sky as being in layers, where we are in the lowest layer, and that is where most of our clouds are too. The layer above that is drier, changes less and changes more slowly, but the water in there is still important for being right about the future. It is harder to look at the water in the higher layer than it is to look at how hot it is, or the water in the lower layer, so computers often think there is too much water there. They also think it will be colder up there in the future than it really will be.

I have worked out how wrong computers are about how wet it is and how cold it will be using guesses made four years ago, and machines that were thrown into the sky to look at the same times that were guessed about. (I’m now finishing off writing about this so other people can know about it too!) I have also looked at how the computer being wrong about water and wrong about how cold it is in the future are tied together.

Now I have made a lot of future guesses about those days four years ago, some where the computers have the wrong information like they did before, and some where they have the better information. I am also getting the computer to tell me how it is making the guesses, so I can try to find out what it is wrong with the computer to make it think the higher sky layer is too wet. Using these two sets of guesses I can also find out exactly how important getting how wet it is right for telling the future well.

Linda  TocaAnalysis of peatland carbon dynamics using combined optical and microwave satellite data

I study very important wet places and the tiny parts they breath in and out. Most of the time I use space pictures and computer to come up with something to show, but later I plan to go outside to the wet places and see in person how much tiny parts they breath out, and check if it is the same as computer says. I also want to use small flying thing that can make more pictures of wet places from above to see if they can help computer work better. It is very important as the wet places hold huge numbers of tiny parts and we need to know what could happen in the further times with air getting hotter and dry times longer. Do the wet places give much more tiny parts with hotter air and is it enough with space pictures to tell how much, that is what we want to find out.

Wilfred Calder-PottsQuantifying the impact of increased atmospheric CO2 and climate change on photosynthesis using Solar Induced Fluorescence

When trees accept light they make food. They also make their own light. If you see this light you can guess how much food they are making. Some people have built machines to see this light from space. But we are not sure exactly how much food they are making. I am trying to understand exactly how much food is made, using the light. I am doing this by seeing this light from trees which are hot or cold or have more or less bits of food.