Chattering Class

Randall Munroe Makes the Complicated Stuff Simple for Us (and You)

The "xkcd" cartoonist experiments with using only 1,000 common words to describe complex things…like, say, a “sky boat with turning wings.” (Ahem, a helicopter.)

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Author Photo of Randall Munroe ( Image Credit: Randall Munroe)

Randall Munroe is a cartoonist with a degree in physics. Years ago, while working as a roboticist for NASA, he started the webcomic “xkcd.” The drawings are simple, mostly stick figures, but the concepts are big, as he takes on technology, computer science, and math.

His latest book is called, “Things Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.” True to the title, he draws and describes complex things like engines and laptops… using only the thousand most common words in the English language. So Brendan kicked off his meeting with Randall, he asked the cartoonist to simply explain the book.

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Randall Munroe: Well, it’s a whole bunch of sheets of paper that are all stuck together on one side so they don’t get lost. And then there’s really hard paper on the front and the back, which keeps the paper inside from getting torn when people are carrying it around.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I want to give our audience a sense of how you use these words, so I was going to try giving you a complex word that you’ve already broken down in the book, and maybe you can tell me how you decided to explain that concept.

Randall Munroe: OK.

“Cells” become…

Photo Credit: mrhighsky / Thinkstock
Photo Credit: mrhighsky / Thinkstock

Brendan Francis Newnam: The first one is cell, C-E-L-L, as in cells in our body.

Randall Munroe: Well, so I describe cells as they’re the little bags of water that you’re made of.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s right, the bags of stuff inside you.

Randall Munroe: I think that the cell was probably the hardest one to explain in simple words, partly because everything is so made up of membranes. And, you know, I can’t say “membrane,” obviously.

So, I was calling everything bags, and I felt like I was using the word “bags” so often on that page. That was just because it really is. All of life is just membranes inside membranes inside membranes. So either I’m going to use the word “membrane” a lot or I’m going to use the word “bag” a lot.

“Helicopter” becomes…

Photo Credit: malexeum / Thinkstock.com
Photo Credit: malexeum / Thinkstock.com

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, OK, another phrase, tell me how you described a helicopter.

Randall Munroe: Well, a helicopter is… so, there’s a regular plane — which I would sometimes call a “sky boat” — and a helicopter is just a sky boat with turning wings. There were a lot of things about a helicopter that confused me. It was actually when I started realizing that it’s just like a plane, except the wings are going around in a circle so the helicopter can stay still…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes.

Randall Munroe: …That really kind of helped me understand a couple of things about helicopters that hadn’t clicked before.

“Padlock” becomes…

Photo Credit: PABLO I. ABREU GARCIA / Thinkstock.com
Photo Credit: PABLO I. ABREU GARCIA / Thinkstock.com

Brendan Francis Newnam: Were there other moments in the book like that? You go through, I think, about 50-55 things here. What was one of the things that like, really, you were like, “Wow, I’m really happy I went through this exercise because now I have a richer understanding of this?”

Randall Munroe: Well, I definitely think the helicopter was a fun exercise that way. One of the more sort of deranged phrases I used to describe something was when I was describing how a padlock worked. I called it a “shape checker.” And, when I talked to people about it, they were suggesting things like, “Well this is a thing that lets the right people in or something.”

And that’s sort of how we think about locks. But really, all the lock does is it checks whether a piece of metal is the right shape. And shortly after, I had written the chapter on that where I was trying to talk about what a lock really does, there was an article in the newspaper on the TSA’s program for secure luggage locks. It’s a program where the TSA has master keys to all these commercial luggage locks, so they can open the stuff in the airport if they want to inspect it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, wow.

Randall Munroe: And the newspaper had run an article on this where they published, among other things, a photo of all the cool TSA… you know, their master key set. And whoever was publishing it, they didn’t realize that a photo of a key shows the shape of the key, and that’s all the information you need to make another key.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, my goodness!

Randall Munroe: There’s nothing magical about the key itself. We think of it as just a token, but really all it is is a certain shape.

It’s totally understandable because we think about keys in this sort of weird way, as they’re this metaphor, this idea, but really it’s just a shape.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. Well, this book, again and again, kind of delights with the way it makes you rethink about some fundamental concepts. You know another way of looking at this book — I have a friend who’s an economist, and she often gets upset when people say that they’re not math people. She feels like it’s a little bit of a cop-out, and that it shows that society, we’ve just accepted, “You know what? It’s OK if you don’t understand math.”

That’s not really healthy for people because everyone has the capacity to learn math. Similarly, could a complaint be made that this book may inadvertently enable kind of people’s technical illiteracy?

1. Jacket artwork - THING EXPLAINER

Randall Munroe: Well, I think, really what I’m trying to focus on here is sort of the way that we’re using language. You know, I want to explain the way an engine works in a way that really does help give you an understanding of it, whether or not you know the complicated words.

You know, I did a degree in physics, and I felt like I always had this impulse to kind of use complicated words just to show that I knew them because there’s such a pressure to show that you know things. And this insecurity anytime you’re doing anything, especially in academia, that makes you kind of want to go out of your way to make sure… to preempt anyone criticizing or anyone being able to catch you in using something wrong.

And I think that sometimes that can be a little bit counterproductive. So, I liked having a book that sort of went in the other direction a little bit.

What would “dinner party” be?

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, our show’s called “The Dinner Party Download.” We’re really, you know, a magazine about things happening in culture this week. Could you just maybe describe a dinner party using some of these common words?

Randall Munroe: Sure. So, a “dinner party,” which is a bunch of people getting together, and they get to talk about stuff, and they eat and drink stuff, and sometimes the stuff they drink makes it so that they talk more or they don’t think as much about what they’re saying. And then they also eat stuff that people found in the ocean that doesn’t look like the stuff that you would normally eat, and I’ve always thought that was a little bit strange.