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18 Complicated Scientific Ideas Explained Simply

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In 2012, Randall Munroe of the webcomic xkcd published a description of the Saturn V rocket using only the 1000 most frequent words in English. Under this restriction, the rocket was called "up-goer five," the command module was "people box," and the liquid hydrogen feed line was "thing that lets in cold wet air to burn." The comic inspired Theo Anderson, a geneticist who supports accessible science education, to build a text editor that would force the user to write with only the 1000 most frequent words. He then invited scientists to describe what they do using the editor.

Geologists Anne Jefferson and Chris Rowan created the Tumblr "Ten Hundred Words of Science" to collect examples of scientific text rendered into up-goer five speak. From the site, here are examples of up-goer simplified science from 18 different fields.

1. Olfactory biology

"I watch boy flies try to do it with girl flies to see if they really like to do it, or they like boys flies more. This happens when they can’t smell something the girl flies have that makes them want to do it with girl flies or something the boy flies have that makes them not want to do it with boy flies." Jennifer Wang, research technician in a lab studying fruit fly olfactory behavior

2. Web development

"Computers are used to share pictures, words, and movies (usually of cats) with other computers. The computers need to show the cats on boxes with tiny lights in them, but don’t know how. People like me tell the computer many words so that it knows how to change the tiny lights to look like a cat. We try to make the lights change very fast so that you don’t have to wait for your cats. Some days the lights are all wrong, and we have to tell the computer more words to make them look like cats again." Brandon Jones, Google Chrome GPU Team

3. Political economy

"I try to see if bad people with power let bad people in business do bad things for easy money. Also I try to see if this hurts good people and their money." Warren Durrett, political economist

4. Paleomagnetism

"Deep inside our world is a huge ball of hot stuff. This is the stuff that turns the black rock we use to find our way when we go far away. I used to study tiny bits of the same black rock, inside real rocks, to know the pull of the deep hot under world ball long, long ago—before people, or animals, or trees, or almost any living things were here. I studied bits of the black rock, like the pieces we use to find our way, inside other rocks that formed in fire under the ground. The hot under ground ball gave these black rock pieces a direction long ago, and they did not forget." Peter Selkin, paleo/rock-magnetist

5. Biological Anthropology

"I study old human stuff. We look at the old stuff to see when and where humans came from and why we look and act so funny instead of acting like other animals." Meagan Sobel, Biological Anthropology student

6. Environmental science

"I look at how water from the sky reaches the ground when there are trees in the way. Especially trees that are burned or dying. I try to figure out if the trees change: (1) how much water gets to the ground, and (2) what happens to the water when it's on the ground. I also try to figure out what will happen to this water in the next tens of years. This is important for things growing on the ground and living in the water, and for the water we use and drink." Sarah Boon, environmental scientist

7. Particle physics

"Where I work, we slam together small things to break them into even smaller things until we have the smallest things possible. This is how we know what matter is made of." Paul Sorenson, Physicist studying Quark-Gluon Plasma with the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory

8. Planetary science

"I tell space buses on a big, cold red rock in space to take pictures of the rocks and the sky. I look at the small rocks that go around the big red rock. The small rocks tell us about what it is like inside the big red rock. I like to look for ice water in the sky. I also take pictures of the Sun to learn about how much ice water and other stuff is in the sky. My favorite thing to do with the space buses is look at the stars in the night sky to look for ice water in the sky." Keri Bean, planetary scientist

9. Linguistics

"I look at how numbers play with other words when we speak. I think a lot about the way we mark words (like marking 'eats' different from 'eat'), and what that tells us about what they mean, and what other words around them mean (I show that it tells a lot). I also think a lot about whether the things we say allow more than one meaning. Like if someone says 'twenty boys ate a hot dog,' if it means they all shared one hot dog or if it means each one ate a hot dog, or if it means both." Sarah Ouwayda, Linguist (syntax, semantics, Arabic, Semitic languages)

10. Information security

"There are bad people who want to make the things you see on the computer go away. Sometimes it is for money and sometimes it is a game. The simple way of making computer stuff go away is like shouting very loud so no one can hear. This makes it so you can not see the things on the computer you want until they stop shouting. I try to make them be quiet." Christian Ternus, information security researcher

11. Cognitive science

"If we want to know how the brain makes memory and uses memory, we need to make people do things like learn stuff and then remember it. I want to know how we imagine things, and how memory makes this possible. So, I ask people to imagine things, and see how good they are with different words. Then, we look at their brains at work using a big noise box that takes pictures inside the head. We also ask people who are missing a piece of brain to also do stuff to see what they can and can’t do. Then we’ll know what different brain pieces do, and one day put all the pieces together to understand the mind." Kristoffer Romero, PhD student at the University of Toronto

12. Astrophysics

"So imagine this. You are holding a bright thing and pushed by a friend so hard for so long that it seems to her that you are nearly as fast as the light leaving the bright thing. To her, the light is moving just a little bit faster than you, so only getting away from you slowly. But to you, the light is still moving away from you faster than anything else can ever move. You and your friend don’t agree on how quickly you and the light are moving away from each other. What’s going on?" Euan

13. Aerospace engineering

"My job is fun! I make a car that will go in space and meet with a house that is in space. People and things will be able to ride in my space car. I work on the keep cool and breathe part of the space car." Nicole Resweber

14. Circadian rhythm biology

"Little flying animals can tell time of day. Little flying animals can tell time of year. It’s all in their heads." Bora Zivkovic

15. Immunology

"Our body doesn’t like to have visits from other things that don’t look like friends. When they come inside us, our cells look at them with many different types of eyes. Different eyes see different figures and forms, so they can find out what they are and what to do with them. They are not usual eyes, they work like little hands too and grab things. I am studying one of these eyes that sees weird stuff, like those things that grow on your food when it goes off. But this eye doesn’t do it alone. And that makes it exciting. It has some other friends helping; the more eyes the better! All-in-one they catch the stranger and they eat it. Once eaten, they show the left-over little pieces to their cell-friends. So that they know what kind of bad guys to fight. They also call more friends in if there is a lot of it to eat. This is how our body keep us free from being sick and stay happy, isn’t it amazing?” @Analobpas, talking about C-type lectins

16. Sea ice physics

"When it is cold the Big Water becomes ice. In the long night the Big Water near the place of the long night which has no big white animal becomes ice more quickly than it does in the place of the long night which does have big white animals. I felt the ice and the big water under the ice with better senses than people have, and now know why the ice that grows from the big water sometimes grows with ice leaves on its bottom." Alex Gough, PhD Thesis, University of Otago

17. Number theory

"People ask how many of a kind of thing there are; the thing might be a kind of number, or something like a number. I, together with others, work out how many of those things there are by understanding the way some kinds of spaces look; these spaces are, in a way, the same as the things about which we ask, 'how many,' but in another way they are different. This allows us to use different ideas when we think about them, and answer some questions about numbers which could not be answered before."
Jordan Ellenberg, number theorist. (Blog, professional homepage.)

18. The scientific method itself

"Now, you have your two things that you think will help the sick people get better. Give one to the people in group one, and the other to the people in group two. If you can, it’s a really good idea to make sure that the sick people don’t know which group they are in, or what they are having to make them get better. The same is true for the people working on the problem. This is for a good reason: we have found that people get better faster when they think they have been given something that works well to make them feel better, even if they haven’t really.

"Now: you know what is wrong with your sick people, so you know how long it will take for them to get better. Wait a while, and then look and see if people get better faster (or more better!) in group one, or group two. This will tell you which of the things that you did helped people the most.

"Looking at a big number of sick people will help you to be sure that you have got the right answer. If you have friends who have tried the same idea, you can add their numbers to your numbers and get an even clearer idea of what works best. Don’t let anyone hide their numbers!" Ben Goldacre, a doctor/researcher who writes about problems in science

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7 Spine-Tingling Tales of Christmas Ghosts
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Traditionally, Christmas in England was a time for scaring the bejesus out of little children by telling ghost stories around the fire. Charles Dickens led the way with his famous ghost story A Christmas Carol, but what of the "real" ghosts said to haunt the land at Christmas time? Below are seven spine-tingling and seasonal stories of Christmas ghosts.

1. THE HAUNTED CHRISTMAS FEAST AT ALCATRAZ

Dinner hall at Alcatraz
Alex Light, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The island of Alcatraz, off the coast of San Francisco, has a long and spooky history. In its earlier days, Native Americans allegedly used to banish miscreants to the island as punishment, where they were reportedly plagued by the local spirits. Alcatraz, of course, became a notorious federal prison in 1934, housing criminals such as Al Capone before it was shut down in 1963. Today, visitors to the island report hearing screams, the clanging of metal doors, and the sound of voices within the walls. One of the more famous tales associated with the island supposedly occurred in the 1940s, when warden James Johnston held a Christmas Day party at his residence for the staff at the prison. The good cheer is said to have been brought to a swift halt when an apparition sporting mutton-chop whiskers and a gray suit appeared. The temperature in the room plummeted and the fire blew out, before returning to normal when the spirit disappeared about a minute later. The rattled guards were too scared to stay in the residence, and the rest of the Christmas celebration ended abruptly.

2. THE GHOSTLY QUEEN RETURNING HOME AT HEVER CASTLE

Hever Castle
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Anne Boleyn is notorious as the second of King Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives. To marry Anne, Henry spent years seeking a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and went on to sever England’s relationship with the Catholic Church in Rome, forever changing the course of British history. Despite the lengths he went to ensnare her, Henry soon grew tired of Anne and, choosing to believe the idle gossip surrounding her, had her beheaded in 1536. A number of reports exist of the ghost of Anne Boleyn, but perhaps the most affecting is the version said to haunt her childhood home, Hever Castle in Kent. Some say that every Christmas Eve, the spectral figure of Anne Boleyn can be seen slowly gliding across the bridge over the river Eden toward her family home, where she was at her happiest.

3. THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN AT ROOS HALL


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Roos Hall in Suffolk lays claim to being one of the most haunted houses in England. The 16th century hall has a number of sinister connections, including a gruesome “hanging tree”—an oak tree planted at the site of the old gibbet where numerous criminals were hung. To make things even spookier, inside one of the building's cupboards, the mark of a devil’s cloven hoof is said to be imprinted. But perhaps the most dramatic haunting is supposed to happen every Christmas Eve: Legend has it that a headless horseman clatters down the driveway with his four black horses pulling a phantom coach, terrifying anyone who witnesses him.

4. THE HAUNTED DINING ROOM AT THE CRESCENT HOTEL

The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas

The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was built in 1886 and is rumoured to harbor numerous ghosts, who seem to be especially playful during the holidays. One Christmas, the staff came down to set up the dining room only to find the Christmas tree had been moved from one side of the room to the other. Another year, all the menus in the dining room had been scattered around the room. Other visitors have reported seeing groups of ghostly dancers clad in Victorian-era clothing, whirling around the deserted dance floor.

5. THE GHOSTLY GATHERING OF KINGS AT WAWEL CASTLE

View of the Wawel Cathedral from the Wawel Castle entrance
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Poland's Wawel Royal Castle was built on Wawel Hill in the 1500s. Within the hill lies a deep cave known as Smocza Jama (Dragon’s Den); legend has it that a great dragon once lived there, terrorizing the locals, before Prince Krak bravely vanquished the dragon and brought peace to Poland. To memorialize this event, a statue of the dead dragon now stands in the cave. Go deeper into the cave and you come to yet another chamber, and it is here that on December 24 every year, all the long-gone kings of Poland are said to meet and hold a spectral special council.

6. THE MISTLETOE BRIDE AT BRAMSHILL HOUSE

The Long Gallery, Bramshill House
Tsukiko YAMAMURA, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In the early 17th century, a young woman named Anne was to be married on Christmas Day at Bramshill House in Hampshire, England. After the ceremony and feast, as was tradition at the time, the guests were all set to carry the bride to the bedchamber. Anne suggested a game be played, and asked for a five-minute head start before the guests came to find her. Everyone searched long and hard for Anne, but no sign of her could be found. At first they thought she had played a merry trick, but soon a sense of unease fell over the guests. The bridegroom, Lord Lovell, was distraught, and guests began to whisper that she must have fled. Days, weeks, months, and years passed, and Lord Lovell never stopped looking for his bride. One day, some 50 years after her disappearance, Lord Lovell was up in the huge attic of the sprawling mansion, where he began tapping on the oak panelling. As he knocked, a long-hidden secret door sprung open, and inside he found an ornate wooden chest. He pried open the heavy wooden lid, and there, still in her wedding dress and clutching her mistletoe bouquet, were the skeletal remains of his beloved. The scratch marks on the inside of the lid of the chest attested to her desperate, but futile, effort to free herself from her hiding space. (While the story appears in many variations, Bramshill House is thought to be the most likely site.)

7. THE APPARITION OF A MURDERED HIGHWAYMAN IN KENT

A burial in the forest
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One Christmas Eve near the close of the 18th century, a notorious highwayman named Gilbert is said to have stopped a coach and horses on the Hawkhurst Road in Marden, Kent. The coach contained a young lady and her father, and Gilbert ordered them out onto the road. Just as the girl stepped out, the horses bolted, taking the coach and her father with them. The young lady was left alone on the dark road with the highwayman, and as she looked into his face, she recognized him as the very same highwayman who had murdered her brother some years earlier. Horrified, she drew a hidden knife from her bag and stabbed Gilbert in the side, fleeing into the bushes. When the horses were calmed and the coach returned a little while later, the men discovered the bloodied body of the highwayman, and buried him at the side of the road. When villagers found the woman in the forest the next day, she had gone completely mad. They avoided that spot in the road for many years, and it's said that every Christmas Eve, the bloody scene is silently replayed to all that pass through.

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15 Surprising Facts About Steve Buscemi
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

With his meme-worthy eyes, tireless work schedule, and penchant for playing lovable losers, Steve Buscemi is arguably the king of character actors. Moving seamlessly between big-budget films and shoestring independent projects, he’s appeared in well over 100 movies in the past 30 years. But if you think he’s anything like the oddballs and villains he regularly plays—well, you don’t know Buscemi. In celebration of the Brooklyn native's 60th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about the Golden Globe-winning actor.

1. HE WAS BORN ON A FRIDAY THE 13TH.

It only seems appropriate that Buscemi, who dies on screen so frequently, would be born on such a foreboding date. Growing up in Brooklyn and Valley Stream, New York, Buscemi also experienced plenty of real-life misfortune. As a kid, he was hit by a bus and by a car (in separate incidents). On the plus side, he used the money from the legal settlement following the bus accident to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York City.

2. HE WAS A NEW YORK CITY FIREFIGHTER.

As a teenager, Buscemi worked a series of odd jobs: ice cream truck driver, mover, gas station attendant. He even sold newspapers in the toll lane of the Triborough Bridge. When Buscemi turned 18, his father, a sanitation worker, encouraged his son to take the civil service exam and become a New York City firefighter. Four years later, in 1980, the future star became a member of Engine Co. 55, located in New York City's Little Italy district. While he answered emergency calls during the day, at night Buscemi played improv clubs and auditioned for acting roles.

After four years working for the FDNY, Buscemi landed one of the lead roles in Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986), a drama set during the early days of AIDS in New York. Buscemi took a three-month leave of absence during filming, and afterwards decided not to return.

3. HE FORMED A COMEDY DUO WITH SONS OF ANARCHY’S MARK BOONE, JR.

For a brief while, Buscemi tried his hand at stand-up comedy (he bombed). In 1984, he met fellow aspiring actor Mark Boone, Jr., and the two began performing together. Part improv, part scripted comedy, the two would often carry out power struggles that pitted thin-man Buscemi against the larger Boone. The New York Times called their act “theater in the absurdist vein.”

4. HE DID NOT AUDITION FOR THE ROLE OF GEORGE COSTANZA.

Like any hard-working actor, Buscemi has had his share of failed auditions. His tryout for Alan Parker’s Fame lasted less than 30 seconds. In the late ‘80s, Martin Scorsese brought him in four different times to read for The Last Temptation of Christ. (Buscemi ended up reading every apostle’s part before being turned away.) He also auditioned for the part of Seinfeld’s George Costanza—at least according to numerous sources, including Jason Alexander himself. But it turns out this tidbit—fueled, no doubt, by the thought of a very twitchy, bug-eyed Costanza—isn’t true. On a recent episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Buscemi addressed the rumor in his typical good-natured way: “I never did [the audition] and I don’t know how to correct it because I don’t know how the Internet works.”

5. TREES LOUNGE WAS BASICALLY HIS LIFE AT 19.

After gaining momentum with roles in Mystery Train, Reservoir Dogs, Barton Fink, and other films, Buscemi took a turn behind the camera with 1996’s Trees Lounge. The movie, which he also wrote, follows a bumbling layabout named Tommy who spends most of his time at the title bar in the town where he grew up. It’s a classic flick for Buscemi fans and, according to the actor, it was pretty much his life as a teenager living on Long Island. “I was truly directionless, living with my parents,” Buscemi said in an interview. “I was driving an ice-cream truck and working at a gas station… The drinking age was 18 then, so I spent every night hanging out with my friends in bars, drinking.”

6. HE IS FULLY AWARE THAT HIS CHARACTERS OFTEN DIE.

Steve Buscemi in 'Fargo' (1996)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

He’s been shot numerous times, stabbed with an ice pick, riddled with throwing knives, tossed off a balcony, and fed to a wood chipper. Yes, Buscemi’s characters have died a variety of deaths, and the actor isn’t without a sense of humor about the whole matter. He’ll often joke in interviews that he’s living longer and longer as the years go by. Before the 2005 release of The Island, in which the aforementioned balcony-tossing occurs (and into a glass bar no less), Buscemi said he was happy his character lived almost a third of the way through the movie. Buscemi admitted that he will actually read ahead in any script he receives to see when and how he dies.

7. HE HAS A FAVORITE DEATH—AND IT ISN’T FARGO.

For connoisseurs of Buscemi's movie deaths, the demise of Fargo’s Carl Showalter by way of axe then wood chipper is the crème de la crème. But when asked about his own favorite onscreen death, Buscemi references another Coen brothers film: The Big Lebowski. In that movie his character, Donny Kerabatsos, succumbs to a heart attack. It’s a surprise for viewers, and so out-of-the-blue that Buscemi can’t help but be tickled at the randomness of it. “They thought, ‘Well, Buscemi’s in it, so we’ve gotta kill him,'" the actor said in an appearance on The Daily Show.

8. HIS CHARACTER IN CON AIR WAS WRITTEN SPECIFICALLY FOR HIM.

In Con Air, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action movie filled with muscled-up prisoners, Buscemi played the most dangerous con of them all. His Garland Greene—a serial killer whose exploits “make the Manson family look like the Partridge family,” according to one character—enters the film strapped to a chair, Hannibal Lecter mask affixed to his face. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, a friend of Buscemi’s, wrote the part with him in mind, and was tickled when Buscemi accepted the role. To this day, fans will still serenade the actor with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

9. HIS CHARACTER IN DESPERADO IS NAMED AFTER HIM.

Steve Buscemi in Desperado
Columbia Pictures

Although he inevitably dies (courtesy of Danny Trejo’s throwing knives), Buscemi commands the opening of Desperado, Robert Rodriguez’s stylish revenge movie, regaling bar patrons with the story of the title gunslinger, played by Antonio Banderas. Because his character’s name is never mentioned, Rodriguez decided to have some fun and name him "Buscemi" in the credits.

10. HE WON’T FIX HIS TEETH.

Buscemi’s crooked smile has helped him portray lowlifes and losers throughout his career. Dentists have offered to fix the actor’s teeth, but he always turns them down, knowing how valuable those chompers are to the Buscemi brand. In a guest starring role on The Simpsons, Buscemi poked fun at the matter after a dentist offers to straighten his character’s teeth: “You’re going to kill my livelihood if you do that!”

11. THERE’S SOME CONFUSION OVER HOW TO PRONOUNCE HIS LAST NAME.

Many people pronounce his last name “Boo-shemmy,” but it turns out Buscemi himself pronounces it “Boo-semmy.” In interviews, Buscemi says he’s following his father’s pronunciation, and says he doesn’t begrudge anyone who says it differently. It turns out, though, that his fans have it right—or at least mostly right. On a trip to Sicily to visit family, Buscemi recounted recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he noticed everyone saying “Boo-SHAY-me.”

12. HE GOT STABBED IN A BAR FIGHT.

Steve Buscemi in 'Trees Lounge' (1996)
Live Entertainment

On April 12th, 2001, while filming Domestic Disturbance in Wilmington, North Carolina, Buscemi, co-star Vince Vaughn, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg went out for late night drinks at the Firebelly Lounge. After Vaughn traded insults with another patron (whose girlfriend had apparently been flirting with Vaughn), the two stepped outside, and a brief scuffle ensued before the two were separated. Buscemi, who was among the crowd that had gathered, was then confronted by a man who, after a brief exchange, attacked the actor with a pocketknife. Buscemi suffered stab wounds to his face, throat, and hands, and had to return to New York to recuperate. His attacker, Timothy Fogerty, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. In typical good-guy fashion, Buscemi declined to press additional charges and instead insisted Fogerty enter a substance abuse program.

13. HE REJOINED HIS FIRE ENGINE IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

After the horrific attack on New York City’s Twin Towers on September 11, Buscemi—like many Americans—was desperate to help. Although it had been nearly 20 years since he had strapped on his fireman’s gear, the actor reunited with his Engine 55 brethren and for days scoured the towers’ debris for survivors. Buscemi didn’t want his actions publicized; when people asked to take his picture, he declined. It took more than 10 years, in fact, before word got out, thanks to a Facebook post from Engine 55. “Brother Steve worked 12-hour shifts alongside other firefighters digging and sifting through the rubble,” the post read. “This guy is a badass!”

14. HE NARRATES THE AUDIO TOUR AT EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY.

People who take a tour of the historic Philadelphia prison may notice a familiar voice coming through their listening device. So how did Buscemi end up lending his talents to such a seemingly obscure place? It turns out Eastern State is a popular location for film and photo shoots. Scenes from Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys were filmed there, as were album covers for artists like Tina Turner. In 2000, Buscemi scouted the penitentiary for a film project. The location didn’t work out, but the actor fell in love with the history and grand architecture of the 190-year-old prison. When officials asked for his help to celebrate the prison’s tenth year running tours, he agreed.

15. HE DIDN’T BELIEVE TERENCE WINTER WHEN HE OFFERED HIM THE LEAD IN BOARDWALK EMPIRE.


HBO

After years of playing disposable villains and losers on the periphery, Buscemi had grown accustomed to being passed over for leading roles. So when Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter offered him the part of corrupt politician Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in the award-winning HBO series, Buscemi offered his usual reply. “When Terry did call me and he said that he and Marty [Scorsese] wanted me to play this role, my response was, ‘Terry, I know you’re looking at other actors, and I just appreciate that my name is being thrown in,’" Buscemi recalled. "He said, ‘No, Steve, I just said we want you.’ It still didn’t sink in.” Eventually, of course, reality did sink in, and Buscemi went on to win a Golden Globe and Emmy Award across the show’s five seasons.

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