An afternoon with xkcd’s Randall Munroe

On Monday 7, creator of smart web comic and long-standing nerd favourite Randall Munroe appeared at Space Center Houston to talk about his new book, Thing Explainer.

Using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language, Thing Explainer describes how all kinds of different objects work, from the Large Hadron Collider (Big Tiny Thing Hitter) and the Saturn V rocket (US Space Team’s Up Goer Five) to pens and pencils (Writing Sticks) and the microwave (Food-Heating Radio Box).

The talk was piped into London’s Royal Institution where KFS spent the afternoon, and learnt a new Thing Explainer-friendly way of describing Seattle (city where they make computers where sometimes the screens turn blue), how Munroe may be originator for the design of the BB-8 droid from The Force Awakens, and about Ytterby, a Swedish village that punches way above its (atomic) weight, lending its name to no fewer than four elements.

Munroe talked about the challenges of writing the book, given its strict parameters, though said that speaking with simple words IRL can eliminate the insecurity smart people have when they’re talking to each other, as they’re not worrying about what each other knows, whether they know enough, or about correcting each other.

In such a context, it can be more useful to say that the Earth is round – which, broadly speaking, it is – rather than spherical, as you might be told that actually, as the Earth is a bit squashed at the poles, it could be more accurately described as an oblate spheroid. Which you already knew, but didn’t feel the need to say, and are now worried that the person you’re talking to thinks you’re a dunce. Cue the anxiety.

Bestselling picture book notwithstanding, Munroe says that simple words can be great for explaining the simpler aspects of a subject, but if you really want to learn about something, then it’s worth getting to know all the big words, if only just to Google them.

oblate spheroid google


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