I am convinced that 99% of the reason why a person with no scientific background cannot follow the developments of a particular research topic, despite a strong will, is language. Not the lack of ten years of specialization, nor the dearth of basic knowledge. Anything that can be explained in plain English -anything- can be understood by an English speaker willing to listen.
So why is it so hard then? Cannot we, the scientists, just make that little extra effort and step down a bit from our self-erected podium? Or is it not really needed, given the number of science reporters out there, who actually do a pretty good job in most cases?
I will leave alone the issue of whether scientists should enter the fray or not - you cannot be mistaken if you guess what I think of it, given the amount of time I have spent blogging in the last five years. Instead, I will admit that it is very hard to speak English (or any other normal language) when you have learned a more efficient language to communicate a very specific topic, and you have used only the latter in your job for years.
Today I want to make a couple of random examples of things particle physicists say or write in their papers, explaining what is correspondingly heard or read by their peers. I do not mean to say that we should eventually build a dictionary of scientific terms -dictionaries are clumsy and ineffective in the blogosphere or in similar bite-and-run media- but just hint at how we should "expand" our language to bring it back to plain English. Sure, it is going to make the prose boring and quickly unreadable, but that is a different problem, which can be addressed by becoming better writers...
Significance is an important word in high-energy physics. It is only apparently a plain English word: physicists attach to that innocent-looking word a mightily significant meaning, if you allow me the pun. Upon hearing "the significance of that signal is three sigma" a layperson will frown, an inexperienced particle physicist will get excited, and a navigated physicist will frown deeper than the layperson; but despite their uneven reaction the latter two will both understand what the sentence was meant to convey, while the layperson will remain in the dark.
The reason of the different reactions is that "significance" to a layperson means "the meaning" of something, while to a physicist it rather means "how far out in the tail of a probability distribution does an experimental observation falls, when the probability refers to the hypothesis that such observation is not a true feature of the data". (Let us leave alone the different definitions of significance you might encounter in the scientific literature if you wanted to take the plunge, and just record the fact that there are deep issues with a precise, scientific recipe to compute the significance of a signal.)
The above attempt is fair, but since such a plain-English translation still contains some disturbing jargon, we need to iterate: significance may then be explained as "the likelihood that having observed something, this turns out to be only an artifact". Better, is it not? Now let us collate this with the rest of the original sentence: "The significance of that signal is three sigma" can be translated into "It is rather unlikely that the observed signal is just an artifact arisen by chance; just about as unlikely as picking a colour at the roulette table and observing it coming out nine times in a row".
A somewhat astute reader might object that in order not to lose something in the translation, the writer must not just make an effort with her prose, but she is also called to provide an exemplification of the "three sigma" part, and that there being an infinity of possible significances to exemplify, such a translation effort quickly becomes a rather dull occupation. I would counter that there is a difference between the way "significance" and "three sigma" should be handled, because the former is a deep concept which requires to be explained with care any time it is encountered in a text meant for laypersons, while the latter is just a number. In jargon, three-sigma just means "0.0017", that is all.
A truly astute reader instead will notice that scientists can really do without "significance" in a scientific text, without losing any of the scientific rigors they have grown enamoured of. Sure, it requires effort, but the payoff is a better communication of science with the public. Definitely, a goal worth pursuing!
A multiplet is a simple thing to describe: it is a collection of several identical or nearly identical things. Here, however, a difficulty arises because a "multiplet" is a manifestation of symmetry groups, and symmetry groups are tough objects to discuss. So if in a scientific paper you write "the new hadron might belong to a SU(3) multiplet", you have the additional trouble that you need to avoid discussing group theory to an unwilling listener. What is SU(3) ? Do we actually care?
No, as laypersons we do not really care, unless the topic of the text really was group theory. One may get a reasonably good understanding of the above sentence by rewriting the same text as "the new particle is made of more elementary constituents called quarks, the same that constitute the nuclei of atoms; the quarks in the new particle are combined in such a way that the particle turns out to possess a few quite similar properties to several other ones similarly constructed".
Above, the word "hadron" needed to get its own translation too: it cost us a full line of text to do that, but it was not really hard to find suitable words. Conceptually harder was to find a suitable description of what actually means, to a physicist, that a hadron fits in a SU(3) multiplet: we took a pragmatic stand, and explained in simple terms the basic reason why belonging to a multiplet is an interesting thing to note, for a new-found particle. Pragmatism needs to take the place of rigor in our translation efforts.
I also note that in the example above, the level of care with which we may want to explain the consequences of the particle being a member of a hadron multiplet needs to be gauged by the full text: we might find it necessary to explain further details of the use one may make of the similarity of properties, if the rest of the text built on the concept; or we might be more concise otherwise.
I think the two examples above show the kind of exercise a scientist is called to perform in making a scientific text digestible by the soft stomachs of enthusiastic laypersons. If you are a particle physicist, I invite you to try the exercise yourself if you have not done so already: take your latest paper and try to make it readable by your grandma. With grandma, the hardest part may be to find large enough fonts; the rest is perfectly manageable, albeit not trivial.
Comments to this post are welcome especially by those who have some experience with scientific outreach. How important are other factors apart from the language barrier? Can clarity and brilliance of text coexist with the rather pedantic sentences one is obliged to put together? What other ingredients are required to make a scientific paper understandable? How far can one allow oneself to approximate and sacrifice accuracy? These are questions I constantly ask myself when I try to write good articles in this site.