Monday, May 16, 2005

Explain it to the middle aged Tennessee lady

Feynman said that you have really understood something only when you can bring it down to a freshman level - explain it with the simplest possible previous knowledge. However, what happens when you need to explain your research to your grandma?

As I was chatting in this flight with the middle-aged Tennessee couple, they asked me what I was doing exactly. I said "I am working with plasmas, like plasma TVs. However we use plasma for a different purpose". The response was "Oh, what are you doing specifically then?"

I don't know why a 50 year old lady wanted to know how is plasma used outside lights and TVs. But I know for sure that I faced the following situation: This person wasn't even remotely close to a freshman level. She probably didn't have any kind of college knowledge: she was just a housewife from a small town in a southern state. How could I explain to here what a multibunched plasma wakefield accelerator is?

I think that I could do it alright if we had a sufficient amount of time and the ability to make some notes. Then I have the strong belief that I could explain it - step by step, start from the very basics and up to the highest concepts. Just the main idea, not the whole thing of course. But, I didn't have that either. She didn't want a long debate, she needed a short answer, maybe in a couple of sentences that explained what was I doing... And here comes one of the toughest things I have ever faced: how the hell am I supposed to do that? It requires great skill to be able to get a concept from a vague complicated research level down to 1 sentence, a sentence that has to be so accurate, so concise, so clear, so exact and at the same time so simple and well understood that a 50 year old lady from a small town of Tennessee that has never even remotely heard of these things can grasp.

There are some questions that people ask me very often. For example, "How is LA compared to NY?" or "Do you think the people in CA are friendly?" or "What are you going to do after you graduate?". These are questions that require considerable discussions and it's tough to answer them simply. However over the years that I've been here I have answered these questions so many times that now I have narrowed down the answers to 2-3 sentences each - a concise set of arguments that makes sense (although dense in content) and makes people happy as an answer.

Well, eventually I will do the same thing with my research.