A couple weeks ago, the MacArthur Foundation announced its yearly class of “Geniuses,” i.e., people who they’ve chosen to receive a no-strings-attached award of $625,000. It’s officially called the MacArthur Fellows program, but people refer to the grantees of this award as geniuses–because the foundation has such a strong track record of picking people who end up having huge effects in their disciplines. Besides the money, what’s really neat about this grant is that there is no application process and it is not restricted by subject matter. Each year, it goes to a couple dozen people, from economists to ceramists to engineers.
It’s interesting to read about the research that the Geniuses do, in part because it’s useful to see how they’ve put their obviously complex work into simpler language for the purposes of this widely publicized award. They–both the Geniuses and the MacArthur Foundation who is granting all this money–want to be able to show that the research has broad application, and so the language they use to describe the research must be broad. It seems like a pretty difficult rhetorical problem: convey the complexity and difficulty of one’s research in simple language for the public, without either condescending or confusing, of course.
These descriptive sections of two Geniuses, Manu Prakash and Rebecca Richards-Kortum, both of who do engineering-related stuff, are well done, because they explain in some detail what they do, without using specialist terminology. The videos are neat too (and notice how slowly they speak!). Look how often these descriptions use examples. Almost every statement is followed by a grounding example. Another technique I notice is the very useful type of phrasing, “from [BLANK] to [BLANK].” I used that in this post, at the end of the first paragraph. “Prakash’s projects range from explorations of how shorebirds drink to how a few drops of food coloring can demonstrate highly complex behavior such as chemotaxis, akin to active living matter.” This can be a great construction to use because it creates both a sense of “range” AND it offers details, as well.