The Up-Goer Five Challenge – Thesis Edition

The Up Goer Five

The Saturn V, or Up Goer Five, depending on your jargon.

The Up-Goer Five Challenge was inspired by a xkcd comic titled “Up Goer Five” which sought to describe the design of the Saturn V Rocket, using only the one thousand (or “ten-hundred”) most common English words. AmericanScience: A Team Blog has a great description of the reaction to the comic, and the resulting challenge to scientists to translate their research abstracts using a special web-based text editor to contain only the ten-hundred most common words. The challenge was taken up by many people, including chemists, and a linguist  who beautifully describes Saturn, who displayed their efforts on Twitter #upgoerfive, which were collated into a Storify, and a Tumblr was created to showcase the entries.

I thought I would try the challenge as well, using the abstract from my thesis, titled Environmental Fate and Toxicity of Three Brominated Flame Retardants in Mesocosms. Before I start, I fully acknowledge that the abstract (presented below) is full of jargon, acronyms, and not very accessible, but it describes my work in a way that is accepted by my community. Here it is,

Traditional brominated flame retardants (BFRs), namely the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic properties that have resulted in the phase out of their production and their being banned in certain jurisdictions. To meet regulatory flame retardancy requirements, non-PBDE BFRs have entered the marketplace. Much remains unknown regarding the environmental fate and toxicity of these emerging BFRs. The objective of this thesis was to use outdoor mesocosms to examine the fate and toxicity of three emerging BFRs; bis(tribromophenoxy)ethane (BTBPE), tetrabromobisphenol A bis(dibromopropyl ether) (TBBPA-DBPE), and BZ-54, which consists of two BFRs, ethylhexyl-tetrabromobenzoate (EHTeBB) and bis(ethylhexyl)tetrabromophthalate (BEHTBP).

While it was difficult to accurately determine degradation rates because of fluctuating concentrations, the estimated half-lives indicated these compounds are persistent (> 60 days in sediments). The partitioning of the compounds between the particulates and the sediment resulted in differential degradation rates (greater in the particulates), and products formed; those formed on the particulates were consistent with photodegradation products.

The effects of these emerging BFRs on Hyalella azteca and the benthic macroinvertebrate community were assessed through the use of in situ exposure and sampling techniques. The in situ Hyalella cages showed a high degree of variability for most endpoints, regardless of their placement (e.g., water column vs. sediment) in the mesocosm. BTBPE accumulated in the H. azteca (0.03 – 1.4 ng/g ww), however this was not associated with any changes in growth or reproduction. There was high variability in abundance and diversity between the mesocosms, which limited the ability to detect statistically significant differences. Interestingly, the BZ-54 treated mesocosms had the greatest abundance, and the least amount of community diversity.

This thesis examined the bioaccumulation potential of these compounds in fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas), as well as the associated effects on growth and development as measured through physical and biochemical endpoints. There was considerable uptake and persistence of BTBPE and TBBPA-DBPE, as well as indication of metabolism of these compounds, but limited physical effects observed. There were indications of increased oxidative stress in the BZ-54 treatment, and increased induction of vitellogenin in fathead minnow from the BTBPE treatment.

I could tell translating this into Up Goer Five language was going to be a difficult challenge, as from the title of my thesis, “and” “of” and “three” were the only words recognized by the Up Goer Five word editor. The description was made more difficult when words like “treatment”, “pond”, and even “fish”, were not allowed. So with a bit of working (e.g., fish = water cats, thanks PETA) here is my translated abstract using only the ten hundred most common words.

Old school fire slowing things are long lasting and bad, so new fire slowing things were made. We don’t know much about the new fire slowing things, like if they are long lasting or bad, so we tried to figure that out using small bodies of water.

While it was hard to find out how long they stick around, the best guess for half-lives says that these new fire slowing things are long lasting (> 60 days in the bottom of water). Where these fire slowing things ended up changed over time, with them liking to go into the bottom of the water. These fire slowing things changed into other things over time, these new things had been seen by other people too.

We wanted to figure out if these new fire slowing things would hurt the little life forms in water. Most of the little life forms were the same in all the bodies of water, no matter what new fire slowing thing was put in the water. One fire slowing thing made its way into some of the little life forms, however this did not change the growing or baby making of the little life forms. There were lots of changes in total number and make up of little life forms between the water bodies. The bodies of water that had one fire slowing thing in them, had the greatest numbers, but the least number of types.

This work also looked into the way the fire slowing things could move into water cats, and if they caused any problems in growing or making babies. Two of the fire slowing things moved into the water cats and stayed there for a long time, and did break down into other, smaller things. There was not much change in the growing, well being, or baby making of the water cats. One of the fire slowing things did look like it was causing some hurt, but only a little bit. Some of the boy water cats that were in the one fire slowing thing water body, had stuff in their blood that should only be found in girl water cats, but not so much that it was really important.

I am not sure that this Up Goer Five version is less jargon filled or any more readable than the original but it certainly illustrates the point about how the language we use, and the restrictions that are placed on that language, to communicate science can have a big difference. AmericanScience notes “what’s at issue is how the language in which we conduct and communicate science—though essential—can be a handicap both to public understanding and to scientists’ own abilities to work out problems together. How much this hits home will depend on the area you’re talking about, of course, but there’s a certain truth to how technical terminology can impede—rather than expedite—collaboration, especially across subfields”. Effective science communication can be tricky, and the Up Goer Five challenge is an interesting way to get people to thinking more carefully about how their word selection impacts readability.


One thought on “The Up-Goer Five Challenge – Thesis Edition

  1. Pingback: Round-Up Ready: A Year in Blogging Edition | On a Quasi-Related Note

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