It was fun to read Randall Munroe’s new book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, which will come out on November 24. Munroe sets out to explain various subjects—from how smartphones work to what the U.S. Constitution says—without any complicated terms. Instead he draws blueprint-style diagrams and annotates them using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. A nuclear reactor is a “heavy metal power building.” A dishwasher is a “box that cleans food holders.” The periodic table is “the pieces everything is made of.”
It is a brilliant concept. If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it. And Randall Munroe is the perfect guy to take on a project like this. He’s a former NASA robotics expert who now makes a living drawing the geeky comic strip XKCD and writing books. (I reviewed his What If? earlier this year.) Munroe reminds me of Sal Khan of Khan Academy, or the novelist and Crash Course host John Green. All three are polymaths who not only know a lot but are also good at breaking things down for other people.
Thing Explainer may use a limited vocabulary, but it is filled with helpful explanations and drawings. Have you ever wondered why frozen food defrosts unevenly in a microwave oven (or, as Munroe calls it, a “food-heating radio box”)? Munroe writes: “When you put iced food in a radio box, after a while, parts of it start to turn to water. But since radio boxes are really good at heating water, those parts start to get hot really fast. They can even get so hot they start turning to air—before all the ice is even gone!”