From The Vault: Ultra High Energy Cosmic Rays Using 10 Hundred Common Words

The great comic strip xkcd started a thing, ages ago now in Internet time, in which you try to describe your scientific research using only the 10 hundred most common English words. As a concept I find this very engaging because it forces one to consider the language used to talk about some pretty abstract, advanced topics. At least in my case, I spend most of my time simmering in a large pot of experts and specialists. This can make it really hard to switch over to a vocabulary that will be more commonly understood. It’s a feeling I get, and from hearing some scientists interviewed on video it seems at least somewhat common, that one wants to get the details exactly right in a way that you can’t do while also being easily understandable.

Trying to limit one’s self to an arbitrarily small list of words forces you to sacrifice the accuracy and precision you crave so dearly. The pool of words is so limited, though, that you may not even become more understandable out of it. It’s like overcoming a fear of spiders by cuddling a harmless but large and fuzzy tarantula. I found it grating but rewarding to sit down and try it. So here it is from the archives, my explanation of Ultra High Energy Cosmic Rays using only the 10 hundred most common English words:

There are tiny bits of stuff which move very fast across space. We don’t know where they come from, what they are made of, or how fast they can go. We would like to know the answers to these questions. We can’t look at them up close, so we have to find new ways of seeing them from the ground.

When they arrive in the air, they hit another tiny bit of stuff in the air. This causes a burst of bits that moves very quickly towards the ground. As it moves down it makes a line in the air light up. One thing we can do is see how bright that line is and where along the line it gets brightest. This helps us find out how fast the first bit was going.

On the ground we can also try to catch some of the bits from the burst in boxes of water. The inside of the boxes must be very dark and the water must be very clear in order to see when they get hit. By knowing what time many boxes close to each other get hit we can figure out where in the sky the first bit came from. Boxes closer to where the first bit hit the air will get hit sooner than ones farther away.

If we see many bits come from the same part of the sky, we may be able to figure out what is out in space throwing them, but we don’t even know if they move in a straight line through space. If we knew what they were made of we could guess how straight they might go.

They could be made of something very light like air or something very heavy like rock. Lighter bits will move in straighter lines than heavy ones. Right now it looks like the slowest (but still very fast!) bits are light and the very fastest ones are heavy. But we see so few very fast ones that we still can’t be sure.

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About apfergus

A coffee sipping, bike riding, (newly) ballroom dancing, cardigan sweater enthusiast, and astrophysics grad student looking at the highest energy cosmic rays.
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