How to Describe Obscure Technical Measurements


At a workshop today on communicating science to government audiences, my colleague talked about the importance of avoiding technical measurements when talking to lay audiences.

That is, avoiding sentences like “this needle is 50 microns in diameter” or “this fossil whale is 20 meters in length”.

The measurement simply isn’t as amazing as you think it is, if your audience has no idea or no context of what that measurement means.

One tip I have on this is to use the semantic search engine Wolfram Alpha to translate measurements into more relatable scales.

Here is a screenshot of my query for “50 microns”:

Copyright Wolfram Alpha LLC. Source: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=50+microns

Copyright Wolfram Alpha LLC. Source: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=50+microns

So, instead of or in addition to mentioning “50 microns”, you can say that it’s about “half the thickness of a dollar bill” or “half the thickness of a strand of human hair”.

– Ben Young Landis

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14 thoughts on “How to Describe Obscure Technical Measurements

  1. Excellent point! Some things to try in order to amplify and connect to learning, if appropriate, could be:

    1) This needle is 50 microns in diameter…so how thick do you think that is?
    2) This needle is 50 microns in diameter…that is a very short distance across…what do you think is another thing that is 50 microns across? I bet you have something in your wallet or on your head…
    3) This needle is 50 microns in diameter. Let me show you what that looks like…
    3) This needle is 50 microns in diameter. Take your fingers and let’s show how thick that is (squeezing until fingers touch)…yeah, 50 microns is….

    Just some thoughts….

    • Really excellent point, José. I’d like to reprint the sage words you posted on the FB thread on this post:

      —–
      Though I would add that whenever possible, seek to amplify before you simplify. From an education perspective, we need to respect the “layman’s” starting point while still sharing the tools that make the field accessible. Hence, I would go with your “in addition to” rather than “instead of”. Not a set rule of course, depending on some things– but I think a good general guide. Also good to always assess one’s “arrogance of expertise”.

      Well said.

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  6. This often comes up in my physics classes–students are working mathematically with newtons, kilograms, pascals, joules, etc., but have no experience with how big these things actually are. I’ve been thinking recently about how to give them a basis for comparison. One idea: pass around physical objects with a unit measurement; for instance, an empty Gatorade bottle refilled with water is pretty close to 1 kg. Pass that around; say “Heft that from hand to hand; get a feel for how massive it is. That’s one kilogram. Now hold it still in one hand and get a feel for how much force is required to hold it up. That’s about ten newtons.”

    • I like it. You should talk with @inversejaik — he was also trying to brainstorm how to explain forces and vectors. I told him I thought a Calorie was a good unit to try his hands at. Maybe you have some ideas too. Or a horsepower. These are everyday units that nearly no one understands what they actually mean.

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