As simple as possible

14 Aug 2016


A few years ago — in November 2012 to be precise — an instalment of the webcomic xkcd featured the Saturn V rocket, the vehicle that supported the Apollo programme for lunar exploration. In the elegant infographic titled ‘Up Goer Five’, cartoonist Randall Munroe detailed the workings of the “flying space car” that took people to the moon, explaining the rocket’s mechanism using only the thousand most common words in the English language. That conceit has now spawned the book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, a simplified look at how things work.

The book features “annotated blueprints” that show the structure and function of a varied selection of devices and apparatus, mostly focusing on topics that fall in the categories of physics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy.

Munroe looks at items that range from relatively simple (like pen and pencil, padlock, and a tree) to fairly complex (like a nuclear reactor, jet engine, helicopter, submarine, and many more), covering everything from the human body to Martian rovers and the periodic table in the process. The author doesn’t refer to most things by their actual names, instead creating descriptive titles for each object using his list of “ten hundred” simple words. The International Space Station, for instance, becomes a “shared space house”; the Large Hadron Collider turns into the “big tiny thing hitter”; a submarine is a “boat that goes under the sea”; while animal cells and the human torso are titled “tiny bags of water you’re made of” and “bags of stuff inside you” respectively.

A well-intentioned but poorly executed obsession with simplifying things is what undermines Thing Explainer

Each object usually takes up one page of the book (although some are expanded to multiple pages); its workings are generally explained using a central diagram that illustrates its structure, with descriptions detailing the main parts or component of the item and what roles they play.

The result is an informative, and often amusing, look at many of the things we come across or hear about in our everyday lives but don’t necessarily know much about. Thing Explainer is chock-full of interesting trivia. This is a volume both children and adults can enjoy; it’s impossible not to learn something while reading it. The illustrations are absolutely terrific and are pretty much the heart of the book. Munroe’s (enviable!) intelligence and thorough grasp of his subjects is palpable on every page as he creatively communicates the ideas, putting things in a unique perspective and presenting topics in ways you might never have thought of before. Plus his humorous asides make sure you stay amused.

Trying to present complex theories in an accessible way without getting bogged down in technical jargon is a commendable idea, and Munroe deserves a pat for conceiving this project and trying to make scientific principles easier to grasp for the layperson. But it turns out that relying on the most frequently used words to explain things doesn’t necessarily make concepts less complicated. At times, the use of simple words just makes things even more confusing, as the explanations are too vague and imprecise to give readers a clear understanding of what is actually going on. The statements become more and more convoluted as Munroe substitutes simple words for terms that would have elucidated the procedure more concisely and elegantly. Sometimes the descriptions even start to feel like clues that don’t mean much if you don’t know the answer to the riddles that are embedded in the text.

“Almost all living things are powered by the sun. Some living things get their power straight from the sun’s light — like trees, and some things that grow in the sea. Most living things that don’t eat the sun’s light eat other living things to get their power. In the end, the power comes from the sun. When things die, some of that power is left in their remains, which is why you can get power out of dead trees by burning them. Sometimes, if dead things don’t burn or get eaten, they go into the ground with that power still inside them. Over a long time, under the weight and heat of the earth, huge numbers of these remains can change into different kinds of rocks, water, or air ... but even as they change, they hold on to their power. When we find these remains, we can burn them, and get all that power — gathered from the sun over huge stretches of time — at once. When we first built machines powered by fire, we burned wood from the forests of our time. When those weren’t enough, we started burning the forests of the past. One day, those will run out, too, and we’ll have to get power somewhere new — like straight from the sun, or the earth’s heat.” — Excerpt from the book

The proper names of components have not been used in the book, which makes the learning process less effective. The weird, whimsical names that are used instead might be amusing but rarely serve any purpose. Mentioning the actual terms in a separate little box on each page or in an appendix at the end of the book would have been a useful addendum and made Thing Explainer both clearer and more educational.

Also, the items in the book aren’t sorted by categories or organised in any way, and the contents jump from topic to topic. Putting items that fall under the same subject together would have helped things complement each other and made the book feel more orderly.

Overall, it feels as if sticking to a contrived conceit took precedence over being as informative as possible. The 1,000 word limit is too restrictive, and that is primarily why Thing Explainer isn’t a very effective “thing explainer” on its own. The book requires either constant googling or prior knowledge of the subject matter — these simple explanations will make a lot more sense if you find the proper descriptions elsewhere, or are already familiar with the mechanics of what you are reading about.

Perhaps the reason why the book feels a tad disappointing is that the American author (who is a former NASA roboticist) has repeatedly set a high standard with his delightfully nerdy work, and the depth of Thing Explainer falls a little short in comparison to his previous endeavours. Munroe has already proven his ability to communicate interesting ideas in an offbeat, refreshing style over and again. His terrific comic xkcd — in which stick figures explore the world of “romance, sarcasm, math, and language” — merges science humour with observations on life, and has been amusing geeks since its inception in 2005. And his previous book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions delved into the world of the impossible, unravelling absurd conundrums by applying scientific principles, and turning the ridiculousness into a learning opportunity, proving that you don’t need to be restricted to a certain set of words to discuss difficult concepts in a way that makes them easily comprehendible.

Still, it is obvious that the author clearly had fun putting this book together, and that a lot of work went into its pages. Randall Munroe’s illustrations are all very impressive and informative, and while Thing Explainer may not always be very clear and comprehensive on its own, the project is sure to add to your knowledge while rousing your curiosity and making you seek out more information about how things work.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.

Thing Explainer
By Randall Munroe
Hodder & Stoughton, USA
ISBN: 978-1473620919

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 14th, 2016