A few days ago, I contacted Henry, a geospatial analyst at the World Bank, to fact check a section of an article I am writing on remote sensing. “There are many types of remote sensors,” I started, sounding more knowledgeable than I felt as  elaborated  on optical, remote, and other sensors.

“It sounds right,” Henry said, after a few moments. His tone hinted at more.  “But, to tell you the truth, I don’t know much about the sensors.” Henry was a geospatial analyst, not a satellite expert. “But do you need all that technical information? What if you said, “Earth Observation tools capture data from space,” he suggested. But I wasn’t prepared to give up. I couldn’t assume that readers would have working knowledge about remote sensors. I  didn’t know, and neither did Henry– and Henry it was his field of expertise!Understanding a scientific or technology process and then explaining it in simple terms is a challenge. Glossing over the details invites oversimplification or  misrepresentation. On the other hand, providing too much detail isn’t particularly helpful.

What can I glean from other writers?

In “Our Silver-Coated Future,” an article about the proliferation of nanotechnology, author Robin Marantz Henig explains the science of nanotechnology in three brief paragraphs.  Henig takes a confessional tone: “it’s hard to wrap your mind around how tiny a ‘nano’ is” and “analogies are mind-boggling but not necessarily enlightening” and “all it does is make you sit back and go “Wow”, she notes before moving into some analogies. She compares the length of a nano to a meter and a human hair and notes how long it takes for the hair on a man’s beard to grow one nano. In the next paragraph, Henig quotes a nano expert: “Things get complex down there” and “when you have small blocks of stuff, they behave differently, than when you have large blocks of stuff.” This quote could sound  uninformed in some contexts, and yet it make a helpful point.  Henig’s third and final explanatory graph adds two  sentences to color in a little more detail. Example: “At the nano level, some compounds shift from inert to active, from electrical insulators to conductors, from fragile to tough.” The juxtaposition of opposites and the repetition is helpful.

More to the point: how to explain Earth Observation, aka Remote Sensing, aka Geographic Information Systems (GIS)? Actually, these terms are not interchangeable, but what I’ve come to discover is that they overlap. A lot.

In “Mapping Ancient Civilization, in a Number of Days,”  by John Noble Wilford explains that archeologists studying ancient Mayan ruins are benefiting from new remote sensing technologies. Wilford introduces the technology in snippets.

First, he explains in  general terms that that the scientists are using “airborne laser signals that penetrate the jungle cover and are reflected from the ground below.”  Several paragraphs later he elaborates: “In only four days, a twin-engine aircraft equipped with an advanced version of lidar (light detection and ranging) flew back and forth over the jungle and collected data.” This second mention follows the sentence structure of the first, but gives readers more information on the how and what of  “airborne” and “lasar signals.”

Wilford then brings the technology to life. Two-thirds of the way through the article he names the system and describes how it works in a chronological sequence:

“The Airborne Laser Terrain Mapper, as the specific advanced system is named, issued steady light pulses along 62 north-south flight lines and 60 east-west lines…. Not all the laser pulses transmitted from the aircraft made it to the surface. Some were reflected by the tops of trees. But enough reached the ground and were reflected back to the airborne instruments. These signals, measured and triangulated by GPS receivers and processed by computers, produced images of the surface contours. This revealed distinct patterns of building ruins, causeways and other human modifications of the landscape.”

The point that some laser pulses did not succeed is interesting to include. It’s not necessary to include… so why is it inserted? I would not be surprised if this note was added at the request of a fact checker or one of the scientists working on the technology who wanted to make it clear that the process does not have a 100% hit rate (as if some processes do!). It would be fun to learn the backstory.

Two examples, two approaches. Henig introduces the technology towards the top of the article. She does not use an authoritative voice. She does not go into details. Wilford takes three passes, going a little deeper, more detailed each time. He uses an authoritative voice.


I think it comes down to expected audience: Henig’s article was published in OnEarth, a magazine produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council for people who are interested in environmental policy. Wilford’s article was published in The New York Times‘ Science section, presumably to satisfy readers who are interested in science. I like his layered approach. I think it’s considerate and informative. I think I’ll try it.

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