I saw comedian Joe Rogan many years ago. Part of his act was talking about how there are very few actual smart people – most people just used information put forth by smart people without actually understanding the things behind it. He said it went from grand scale to small, and as an example he referenced himself using a microphone to talk to rooms full of people. He used one every night, but had no idea how a microphone actually worked – it was just this piece of metal that was plugged into some electronics, and when he talked into it, it made his voice very loud. Obviously, something was happening to the sound waves in those electronics it was plugged into that made them louder, but he didn’t know how that worked – it was probably magic. This is true for most of us, with many of the things we interact with every day. The majority of people, myself included, don’t actually know how most things work.
That’s just one of the reasons I was so excited for Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe to come out this past week. It is because, when I think about it, I am very dumb and this book will explain many things to me. If you don’t know Randall Munroe, he formerly worked for NASA, now runs the popular web comic XKCD.com, and this is his second book behind the great What If?, in which he gives logical scientific answers to absurd hypothetical situations.
In Thing Explainer, Munroe only uses a set of the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language to explain things – a decision he talks about in the book’s introduction. However, since that word is not in that set, it’s called “The Page Before The Book Starts.” It was in this spirit that I mentioned the difference between “suggest” and “recommend” earlier, as recommend also isn’t in the set (you can check words against the list at xkcd.com/simplewriter). Along with these ten hundred words people use most, he draws out blueprint style diagrams of many different things and explains each part. There is a wide variety of things that are explained – from “writing sticks” (pencils and pens) to “food heating radio boxes” (microwaves), and “big flat rocks we live on” (tectonic plates) to “hand computers” (cell phones). All are laid out in a way that literally anyone can understand. Best of all, as you know if you’re already a fan of his work, Munroe is very funny, and his wit comes across well here.
My favorite explanation is for the “picture taker,” or camera. I know what a camera is, and I use cameras all the time, but like Joe Rogan and the microphone, I never knew exactly how I pointed this device at a scene, hit a button, and wound up with a captured image of that scene. I always thought it was magic. If you’d like to learn some extraordinary things while only reading very ordinary words, and wouldn’t mind laughing while doing it, I
recommend suggest this book strongly.