Is it possible to explain the universe of science in just 1,000 easy-to-understand words?

Dec 13, 2015

Could you explain the electromagnetic spectrum, continental drift, or the basics of nuclear power using just the 1,000 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."

Munroe has had many different jobs: comic artist, NASA roboticist. Now he has combined his many skills to put out an illustrated book explaining some of the world’s more difficult concepts in simple language. 

“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,” Munroe says. "But there's also a lot of pressure to not feel stupid, and to not have people think you're stupid, and I think that that it would sometimes push me to use big words when I didn't always need to.

"Or, you know, 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 oblique spheroid.’ I kind of tried to strip away that insecurity and just worry about, you know, what's the clearest way I could say this ... simple words often do the trick.”

Munroe’s quest to focus on simple language sometimes led him to some funny translations. 

“I like calling a rover a 'space car' and calling a space station a ‘shared space house,’” Munroe says. “But I think my very favorite ones were my names for all of the animals in the very last illustration in the book, a tree of life where I just picked out a bunch of animals and gave them new names. And so bats are 'skin birds' ... ferrets are ‘long bite-y eat dogs’ or ‘smelly dogs.’”

Other concepts diagrammed and re-worded in Munroe’s book include data centers, the periodic table of elements, laptops and jet engines. His inspiration comes in part from books he read when he was a kid like "Where’s Waldo?" and "The Way Things Work." He was also inspired when playing a video game. 

“I was playing a space video game where I had to name space ships, and I was just trying to give them than the dumbest names I possibly could because I got tired of majestic names like ‘Falcon’ or ‘Apollo’ or whatever. And so I started calling the things like ‘Up-goer’ and ‘Flying Tube,’” Munroe says, “Then that got me thinking, could I describe the whole thing that way with just simple dumb words?”

Munroe hopes his book will be one that both kids and adults can enjoy, and he has some advice for scientists trying to communicate their complicated subjects to the outside world. 

“I think it would be good if scientists could be better communicators ... but I also think it might be a little unrealistic to to expect them all to be. ... A lot of them are too busy being scientists,” Munroe says. “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.” 

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.