Thursday, February 21, 2008

Putting complicated stuff in plain English

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, not a storyteller in the classic sense, though he has written several books (among them, "The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist"). But he knows how to take complicated thoughts or explanations and turn them into accessible, entertaining English -- a skill all of us can use whether we're writing a news story about zoning law or a narrative feature.

Tyson was on XM Radio's Bob Edwards show yesterday, and here are just a couple examples (quotes are in italics because I'm not sure they're 100 percent accurate, but they're very close):

  • On whether there is life on other planets, Tyson said scientists think there may be an underground lake underneath a huge patch of ice on Jupiter's moon Europa. So I want to go ice-fishing on Europa, he said. Cut a hole in the ice, drop a submersible in and see what comes up and licks the camera lens.
  • On the possibility that a meteor will strike Earth, he said scientists are tracking all these "near-earth objects" and one thing they've figured out is that Jupiter makes a difference in the orbits of those meteors. Jupiter basically runs the solar system, he said, because of its gravitational pull. So in some cases, he said, a meteor whose orbit might have it headed for Earth will come close to Jupiter, which will fling it back out into space. So if not for Jupiter, our solar system could be a much worse shooting gallery than it is.
  • On what would happen to you if you got sucked into a black hole, Tyson said that the gravity at your feet would be greater than at your head, so the force would break your body into little pieces as you went through; and then you'd be pulled through space all compressed, like toothpaste in a tube.

On that pleasant thought ... if anyone has come across examples of writers who are able to explain complicated things in everyday language (that's entertaining to boot), post them in comments or on your own post.