December 17, 2015

An excerpt of Randall Munroe's Thing Explainer

Excerpted from Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words © 2015 by Randall Munroe. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

It’s difficult to boil down complicated concepts.

To describe them in terms everyone can understand. 

That’s what Randall Munroe, author of the massively popular comic strip XKCD does with Thing Explainer. And he uses only the 1000 most common words in the English language. 

It leads to sentences like: “space car for the red world” about the Mars Rover, “group of stars named after a pretend horse” about the constellation Pegasus, and “US space team’s Up Goer Five” about NASA’s Saturn V rocket. The book’s writing and illustrations also touch on microwaves, bridges, and plate tectonics.

Munroe isn’t a stranger to making esoteric things fun and interesting. In fact, he’s built a career out of it. He previously wrote a book called “What If?” where he gave scientific answers to questions like “what would happen if the moon was replaced by a black hole of the same mass?” (Answer: not much

And he also drew a comic after the tragedy at Fukushima that clarified what radiation levels actually mean to an individual. Munroe makes complex stuff engaging, but he doesn’t shy away from their inherent complexity: 

“I know when I was a kid, when I saw a drawing that was really complicated, that made me more interested in looking at it.”

He says he would sit around the lunch table, gazing at a Where's Waldo lunchbox with his friends, reveling in all the idiosyncratic details.

That curiosity brought him to NASA, and helped him launch a web comic that became more popular than he ever would have imagined.

A few years ago, he even volunteered to give a lecture to a bunch of teenagers about the science of energy. He was sure he could make energy interesting – even if it doesn’t always seem that thrilling when you learn about it in school. 

As he talked, though, Munroe could feel the students’ eyes glazing over. 

He turned to Yoda for help - and decided to demonstrate how much energy Yoda used in order to lift up the X-Wing on Dagobah.

“Suddenly, everyone was paying a bit more attention, and it was all because of instead of talking about a block being lifted over a featureless plain, it was an X-Wing being lifted in a swamp by the force." 

 Munroe believes that complexity, in and of itself, isn’t off putting. It’s about making complexity fun. Whether or not that includes Star Wars.

comic strip, Thing Explainer, Randall Munroe, science, Culture, XKCD

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