Last week, the ISC and our partner, 1871, welcomed NASA engineer-turned #1 best-selling author Randall Munroe to 1871’s Merchandise Mart office to discuss his latest book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. Munroe, the creator of the wildly popular webcomic XKCD, also signed books for over 200 adoring fans.
Munroe, a celebrity among scientists and engineers, started writing XKCD in college, where he graduated with a degree in physics. He worked as a roboticist for NASA, but he ultimately left his job to become a fulltime writer of books and his XKCD comic. While he mostly focuses his humor on physics, chemistry, and computer science, Randall took a new approach to science with Thing Explainer.
In this book, Munroe describes, in intimate detail, the inner workings of everything from ballpoint pens to the International Space Station using only the 1000 most common words in the English language. For instance, he describes the inner workings of those boxes that make your clothes smell better (washing machines) and how the Red World Space Car (the Mars Curiosity Rover) finds rocks and determines what they’re made of. In his hour-long talk, Randall discussed how he came up with the idea to write this book, and he shared some of his favorite passages and diagrams.
Munroe said that his interest in explaining things with simple terms started when he learned about the NASA’s Saturn V rocket. He found an original blueprint of the rocket, and decided to replace all of the jargon written on it with simple words and phrases. This practice became a hobby that ultimately led him to draw up dozens of detailed yet simple drawings of other complicated diagrams. For instance, the book includes Munroe’s drawing of the tree of life (with his favorite animals, the “family that birds come from”), and uses simple language to describe each animal and plant.
Munroe’s book is full of passages that come off as silly and humorous because of the circuitous route he must take to name certain things (for example, the Saturn V rocket is the “up-goer five,” and satellites are called “space boats”), but during his talk he said that his ultimate goal with this book is to help people realize that it is okay to sound silly or dumb when explaining complicated things. While he still believes that it is important to know what things are called for scientists and engineers to be able to discuss them with their peers, he believes that jargon is not necessary for simply explaining what things do to those who are simply curious.
After Munroe’s talk, he sat down for a book signing. He not only signed his books (complete with his trademark stick figure), but he also took the time to learn a little bit about each of his fans. He would initiate conversations with his fans by asking about their backgrounds, and if they were a scientist (as most of them were) he would spend a few minutes delving into a deeper conversation about their work. He even accepted several requests to customize his stick figure based on his frequent XKCD characters. Overall, Munroe made sure they everyone went home with a smile on their faces and a story to tell.
The ISC is very proud to have co-hosted Randall Munroe on his trip to Chicago. Munroe’s talk was the first of many that we plan on hosting with our partner, 1871. Stay tuned for more exciting events from the ISC!
Ben Marcus is a public relations specialist at CG Life. He received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @bmarcus128.