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Science in a word – or seven

The Ig Nobel Awards were announced last week for offbeat academic research that “first make[s] people laugh, and then think”.

So now we know why scientists lick rocks (to better see the mineral particles on a wet surface), and that a smart toilet has been invented to check waste for signs of disease, using an anal-sensor.

But most exciting to me was another Ig Nobel event called the 24/7 Lectures, where distinguished academics first give a complete technical description of their work in 24 seconds, and then a summary in just seven words.

For instance: “Nanotechnology: making small stuff do big things.” Or: “Computer software: good, fast, cheap – pick two.” Or dark matter: “What you see isn’t what you get.” Science in seven words? Yes please. Because my son, the immunologist, has had me baffled since he went to university.

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I’d ask a question and he’d start to explain, and I’d find my mind floating away like a helium-filled balloon. So many words, so much science! Poof! “You’re just like your grandad,” I’d say, for my father was also a science major – a chemist – and he never used one word when 10 would suffice.

“Explain it to me like I’m five,” I’d plead. The answer was always the same: it’s far too complex. And now my son has finished his masters and is starting a PhD, and when people ask what it’s about I tell them it’s about three years.

The truth is I don’t know. Or didn’t until my son visited last week, and it seems all this studying is finally paying off for he knows his subject well enough to explain it to his mother. What is he researching, in seven words? Treating an incurable virus deadly to newborns. Of course there’s more to it.

Basically RSV is a very common virus with no cure which we all get every year or two and probably call a cold or flu. Yet RSV kills large numbers of Third-World newborns who don’t have access to palliative medical care.

Enter my boy (and his university, the laboratory he works for, those who laid the groundwork, and those who will follow)… And I listen to him, and I consider motherhood in seven words: “Weaning them, cleaning them, hoping they’ll fly.”

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from The Citizen https://www.citizen.co.za/news/opinion/science-in-a-word-or-seven/

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