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Snippets of science: Berkeley Lab's Video Glossary

For those of you who are fans of symmetry's "Explain It In 60 Seconds", Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has its own version, the Video Glossary.  Berkeley scientists and engineers from a wide variety of disciplines give quick definitions of scientific terms, running the gamut from "Standard Model" to "extremophile".

According to Paul Preuss, one of two Berkeley Lab communications staffers who produce the segments, the glossary went live in 2009 with about 20 entries and now has about 70, including some still in production.  The producers invite suggestions, Preuss says, and the last few dozen entries were all driven by requests.

Some requests are more problematic than others; what was Preuss to do when former director of the Physics Division Bob Cahn asked for "Lie Groups"?

Give Cahn one minute to define "light," of course (that one is still in the works.)

Most entries are about one minute long, which is quite impressive when you realize that some of the presenters are being asked to explain concepts that nobody really understands, like dark energy, or that everybody only thinks they understand, like gravity.

Another refreshing quality of the glossary is its egalitarian nature.  There's no room for CVs or bios or discussions of grant money in these glossary entries.  Nobel Prize winners are no greater experts in their fields than young scientists with newly minted PhDs.  The only perk that lab Director Paul Alivisatos gets is presenting two segments.

Not to say that the presenters can't sneak in a bit of self-promotion.  The computer monitor behind Corie Ralston, who defines "protein crystallography", displays one of her own solved protein structures.  But Ralston only has time for "a teensy amount" of research; she spends most of her days managing crystallography beam lines.  Can she be blamed for choosing to display it?

"I'm rather proud of that protein structure," she says.

And rightly so.  She is a scientist, after all.