Randall Munroe’s Thousand-Word Challenge
Could you explain the electromagnetic spectrum, continental drift, or the basics of nuclear power using just the thousand most common English words? That’s the challenge XKCD’s Randall Munroe took on in his latest book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. In it, Munroe breaks down complex concepts and technologies into simple words and diagrams, explaining how, for example, the “shared space house” (International Space Station) was constructed, and how a “food heating radio box” (microwave) works. He joins Ira to talk about what inspired his jargon-cutting crusade, and how he came up with alternative names for all the animals in the tree of life. (Can you guess what a “skin-bird” is?) Read an excerpt from the book.
Randall Munroe is a comic artist, creator of xkcd.com, and author of Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) and What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). He’s based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. There’s a story about a wager between Dr. Seuss, the famous author, and his editor. The editor bet Suess that he could not write a story, a good one, with just 50 unique words. The editor lost the bet, and the world got a little book called Green Eggs and Ham, proving once again that you don’t need a lot of big words to tell a good story.
But do you need big words to explain, say, a complicated science concept? Or advanced technology? Can you talk about the functioning of an animal cell without mitochondria? Or about the inside of a nuclear reactor without uranium? Sounds like a question for the Flame Challenge.
Well, my next guest answers these questions and a whole lot more in his new book. It’s called The Thing Explainer. The Thing Explainer. It’s just that. Complicated things like laptops and jet engines and electromagnetic spectrum explained using pictures and just the thousand most common English words. Randall Munroe is the creator of the popular web comic XKCD and the author of The Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. He joins me from Boston. Randall, welcome back to Science Friday.
RANDALL MUNROE: Hi, Ira. It’s great to be here.
IRA: Have you heard that story about Dr. Seuss?
RANDALL: You know, I think I heard it years ago. I had not thought about it until now. I never made that connection.
IRA: Well, you do amazing things in this book, Thing Explainer. What was the inspiration for it?
RANDALL: It’s funny. It goes back to a comic I drew where I tried to explain the Saturn V in just the 1,000 most common words. But that actually came from when I was playing a space video game where I had to name space ships. And I was just trying to give them the dumbest names I possibly could because I got tired of majestic names like Falcon or Apollo or whatever. And so I started calling them things like Up Goer and Flying Tube. And I felt like Up Goer where was about the dumbest name I could think of. And then that got me thinking, could I describe the whole thing that way with just simple dumb words.
IRA: I’m looking at the page of the Saturn V which you call the US Space Teams Up Goer 5. And I love that– my most favorite part of this, so it’s like a blueprint page. And it labels a part that says, the part that flies around the other world and comes back home with the people in it and falls in the water. Would made you think that this could all be put together as a book, all these things that you want to explain?
RANDALL: Well, I drew the Saturn V as a comic. And then I was really happy with how that worked out, and I posted it on my website. And then I was thinking, hey, I liked that a lot. I could do another one. Maybe I should do a space station or maybe something like a mountain or tree or whatever. And then the more I thought about it, the more of these ideas I had. And so I just started collecting them. And after I published my first book, I said, hey, books work well for this kind of thing. And the resolution of print is really high which means I can squeeze in tons and tons of detail. And always I’m a sucker for that.
IRA: Now before you were a full time comic artist, you were a roboticist at NASA, right? So you must have used some jargon? Is that something that you thought about at the time when you were writing all this jargon? You know, it should be easier than this.
RANDALL: Yeah, and I mean, I think just in any kind of academia, there’s a lot of– and in technical work in general, there’s a need for jargon because you sometimes need to be very clear about what things you’re talking about. But there’s also a lot of pressure to not feel stupid. And to not have people think you’re stupid. And I think at that, it would sometimes push me to use big words when I didn’t always need to. Or not call the earth a ball or round or whatever because I was worried that someone would correct me and say, it’s technically an oblate spheroid. I think that the more I kind of tried to strip away that insecurity and just worry about what’s the clearest way I could say this, the more I realized that simple words often do the trick.
IRA: So you compiled a list of 1,000 common words that you would stick to in the book?
IRA: But how hard was that to do?
RANDALL: It was– that actually is a lot of work because there are a lot of different ways you can define what the most common words are. If you do things based on movies or Project Gutenberg old books collection or a modern book collection or subtitles on TV shows or newspapers, you get different lists. So newspapers will use words like President or debt or whatever more often. Whereas TV shows will have a lot more words like uhm or hello. And so I did a sort of mix of a bunch of different sources to try to come up with a list of words that really fit our general sense of what common is.
IRA: And because the word requirements lead to some pretty funny translation. I mentioned a couple of them, but let me go into a few more. In microwave oven is a food heating radio box. What were some of your favorite ones?
RANDALL: My very favorite ones– I think I liked calling a Rover a space car and calling a space station a shared space house, the International Space Station. But I think my very favorite ones were my names for all of the animals in– the very last illustration in the book is a tree of life where I just picked out a bunch of animals and gave them new names. And so bets are skin birds, since I can’t say bat. And then I broke– there are dinosaurs. And so I had a couple different branches of dinosaurs. There’s the pointy kind, the kind with plates, the long kind, and the bitey kind. And then birds. And I just had a lot of fun trying to come up with a name. Because there are a couple of animals whose names were on the list, like cat and dog. And so then I could use those, but then for all the other animals, some of them I would say like, the ferrets. They are long by bitey dogs or smelly dogs. And so I could come up with new names based on the few animal names I could use.
IRA: You mentioned that so you draw all these blueprints. And you draw them, they get very detailed. Did drawing this book push you as a comic artist?
RANDALL: Yeah. And it’s sort of, in a way it was like stepping back from comics but a little bit more toward my childhood. Because I didn’t grow up drawing comics. But I did grow up drawing detailed maps of things and diagrams of inventions I wanted to build. And so with this I got to go back, and it was a lot more like that kind of drafting I did when I was younger. And it was hard not to get sucked into just adding more and more and more detail.
IRA: There must’ve been other books that you, as a child, right, saw that were something like this that you said– you must have used something for inspiration.
RANDALL: Yeah well I grew up devouring books like The Way Things Work by David McCullough.
IRA: Great book.
RANDALL: And The Secret House was another one. That was a book of just stuff that happens in your house you can’t necessarily see. So they had microscope views of the things that would be living on your table or wherever.
RANDALL: But one of the surprising ones was I really liked Where’s Waldo. And I never really liked finding Waldo because that was always kind of hard and frustrating. But what I loved was looking over these murals and looking at all the action. And so when I was doing this book, I sort of deliberately made it not– unorganized, so that you could just pick anywhere and start looking and try to see what details you were looking at.
IRA: When I was kid, I had a math book. It was a Golden Book series. The Golden Book of this–
RANDALL: Oh yeah, I think I had–
IRA: Remember those?
RANDALL: Yeah, yeah.
IRA: Golden Book of mathematics. I remember it was the first time I had explained how the Egyptians had done their math. And how you could get pi from dropping toothpicks on the floor. And this book reminds me of that kind of genre. But I never know who these– because I’m a big kid. I love– I’m a geeky kid. I’m certainly an adult, but I love reading these kinds of books and how they’re explained. So I never know who these books are aimed at. Do you have an audience that you aim the book at?
RANDALL: Honestly, I never really know who the stuff I’m writing it is aimed at either. Because when I’m writing it, I’m just thinking about myself before I knew the thing I’m writing about. How would I– I did a bunch of research to find out the answer some question or find out how something works. And then I think, OK, if I want to save myself all the time of all that research, if I could send back in time a short summary, what would it be? And so for some of these things, the explanations are– where they’re things that I’d learned about when I was a little kid, like bridges, the explanations might be more aimed at kids. But some of the other things I only learned about, a lot of them, while I was researching for this book. And so I sort of aim it at someone who is my age. I hope that it’s clear enough and inappropriate enough that kids can like and adults will like it too.
IRA: Was there some idea or concept or device you had to discard? I just, I would like to explain this, but it’s just impossible for me. I have to give up on it.
RANDALL: One that I thought about was piano. And I ended up not including that. And I think partly because with some of these mechanisms– oh another one will be a mechanical pocket watch, which you don’t see too many of anymore. But they’re full of all these gears. There might be long words in watch making for each of those parts. But in a sense, it’s just not something that’s easy to attach words. To it’s just, this is a gear and it’s shaped like this. And it fits into an arm that’s shaped like this. But there’s almost nothing words can add to it. And so I think, there were a few of those things where I said, I don’t know how to describe those in any words, let alone small ones.
IRA: I was also impressed that you explained the periodic table, which is basically just a diagram filled with big, very specialized words. How did you tackle that?
RANDALL: The periodic table was really one of the very few places in the book where I tried to– for the rest of the book, I tried to describe what everything did. You know, I would find something about it and explain how it worked. But for the periodic table, for some of the elements, especially in the very bottom rows, there just isn’t a lot to say about them. And so I had to make it sort of a Jeopardy puzzle. I just describe what they were named after. So I said, you know, this one is named after this guy. And I had a little cartoon of Albert Einstein. Or this one is named after this place, and there’s a silhouette of California, for like Californium or Einsteinium, because there really isn’t anything all that interesting about those metals. But for the upper parts of the chart, I got to make a lot more connections and describe, like, this rock is really well known for killing you if you eat it for arsenic.
IRA: The rock that makes up the beaches, glass, and computer brains.
IRA: Is another one.
RANDALL: Yes, Silicon.
IRA: I didn’t know this, but there are four elements named after the same tiny Scandinavian town? What’s going on there?
RANDALL: That’s the town of Ytterby, I think. I’ve never heard it pronounced. But it was a town where there was a mine near the town where they extracted a lot of rare earth metals. And because of that, a bunch of element discovery happened around there. And so there are four separate elements that are named after this town. There’s elements like Ytterbium and Terbium and Yttrium and, I think, Erbium. And I’m sure it’s a really nice town. And I’ve seen some pictures. It looks like a great place. But it’s very small, and it seems sort of odd to me that 2% to 3% of all substances in the universe are named after this town.
IRA: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. You explain things like the Curiosity Rover, the Large Hadron Collider, but you also explain how a data center works. How did you hit on that as a thing that needed explaining?
RANDALL: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny. We talk about and we think about all this data. I actually did a survey a while back where I asked people, when you are looking at the internet, is there somewhere where you sort of unconsciously picture all of this stuff being before it’s on your screen. You know, where do you think of this being stored? And most people just said, somewhere underground, or in a satellite, or a lot of them said a building out in Montana, or one of the Western states. So I it was good to sort of make it concrete. There’s a little comic going around recently about, I think, Rich Stevens the just said the cloud is someone else’s computer. And I like that. So I wanted to show people, all that stuff on Facebook, it’s in these buildings. And here’s what they’re like inside, and here’s why they’re like that.
IRA: I was speaking with Alan Alder the earlier in the hour about how scientists can be better communicators. Having written books in very simple language, do you have any advice for scientists?
RANDALL: I mean, I think it would be good if scientists could be better communicators. And I think my– but I also think it might be a little unrealistic to expect them all to be. I mean it would be great if everyone was good at everything. But I think, not all scientists can be Neil deGrasse Tyson. A lot of them are too busy being scientists. But I think if you’re trying to write and communicate with the public, I think just keeping in mind that the words that you think of as really clear and easy to understand might not be. And it’s really hard to get over that.
And there was a story recently about how when they interviewed people about antibiotic resistance, people across the board at every education level didn’t get what was meant by the phrase antibiotic resistance. And for people in the medical community, everyone was so used to it, that that was kind of a big surprise. But they found that people were assuming that the phrase meant their bodies became resistant to the antibiotics, not the germs. And that’s a really important difference. And so they said, we should instead say the bacteria are getting stronger. The germs are getting stronger. But I think it’s hard to remember that different people from different areas use different sets of words.
IRA: Now I know that people reading this book– and I’m surely hoping there’s a followup that you’re working on. I know that they want to try writing their own explanations in some simple language, you have a tool for them.
RANDALL: Yeah, when I was writing this book– because no one– I couldn’t just keep looking up on a list every time I use a word. I wrote a tool that would check my text as I’m typing it. And with some help, I put together a version of that tool on my website. Which you can get to it. XKCD.com/simplewriter.
IRA: Wow. Is there a follow up coming up at all?
RANDALL: Not just yet. I think I’m resting my hand after all those illustrations.
IRA: But you know it’s going to happen. People are going to want you to write another book with all the things that were left out of this book, right?
RANDALL: Well, how about, I could always do another book where I can use any of the simple words. I have to use the other 29,000 English words the people know. But I can’t use the or and.
RANDALL: I think that might be impossible.
IRA: Call that the encyclopedia. We’ve run out of time. I’d like to thank my guest. And I’ll take his cue to use the simplest words that I can. Randall Munroe draws pictures and writes words that make you think and laugh. You can see them on your computer at XKCD.com. His new book is called Thing Explainer. Randall, thanks for joining us today and have a happy holiday.
RANDALL: Well, thanks for having me, Ira.
IRA: You can see some pictures and words from Thing Explainer at ScienceFriday.com. Learn all about the US Space Team’s car for the red world. That’s NASA’s Curiosity Rover, of course. At ScienceFriday.com/thingexplainer.