Thing Explainer: XKCD Author Explains Our Complicated World with 1000 Most Common Words

December 31, 2015 | Elizabeth Knowles

Thing explainer
Photo credit: xkcd (CC BY-NC 2.5)

It’s not rocket science.

XKCD Author Randall Munroe has entertained, amused, impressed, and sometimes confused his readers with his “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language” since 2005. If you have never heard of him or his comic strips, I highly encourage you to go check them out.

On November 12, 2012 Munroe published Up Goer Five, a comic in which he labeled and explained parts of the Saturn V rocket — used to go to the Moon — using only the thousand (or as he called them, ten hundred) most common words in the English language. Some elements were simple: “door,” “part that falls off first,” and “fire comes out here,” for example, but others were more complex. “Things holding that kind of air that makes your voice funny,” is an indirect way of talking about helium.

He has made a Simple Writer tool available in case you want to try to write like him. It will let you know whether the words you are using are included in the thousand most common or not, so I thought I’d test it out with this article. All of the bolded words were flagged as too complicated.

SEE ALSO: Watch a Computer Made Out of Dominoes Do Basic Math

In November 2015, Munro expanded this concept to write Thing Explainer, a book explaining many other complex things in the same simplified terms. A few topics covered are: cells, helicopters, bridges (interestingly he simplifies this term even though he doesn’t have to), the periodic table, tectonic plates, laptops, the solar system, the International Space Station and units.

The book’s illustrations are done in his typical clear and simple line drawings with no color necessary. The book aims to simplify topics so that absolutely anyone can understand them, and this oversimplification often leads to hilarious roundabout descriptions.

Some of my favorites are:

“Stickers that yell at you: These are put here by the company that made the computer. They tell you that if you open the computer and then it breaks, they don’t have to fix it”

“Writing water: This is the stuff that goes on the page. We used to get it from sea animals that have many arms. Now — like almost every other part of these sticks — writing water is often made from black rocks and fire water, which are themselves made from long-ago dead trees and sea life.”

“Hole to Outside: If your body makes a new person, it comes out here. About half of all people have this.”

“This end [of the Up Goer Five] should point towards the ground if you want to go to space. If it starts pointing towards space you are having a bad problem, and will not go to space today.”

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