BOOK REVIEW: Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple WordsThing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Allow me the awkward start of explaining two things before offering my lukewarm reception of “Thing Explainer.” First, I loved “What If?” (this author’s previous book.) I thought that book was brilliant, gave it my highest rating, and eagerly anticipated Munroe’s next book (this one.) Second, I didn’t deduct because this book is a pain to read on an e-reader (at least the basic model I have.) That’s on me. I should’ve known better, and accept full responsibility. All I will say on the matter is to recommend that–if you still do want to read this book—you get a hard copy. [If you have an awesome reader, your results may vary.] The hard copy is large-format, and that’s useful because the graphics are so crucial and the text can be hard to read (some of it is light text / dark background and some is dark text / light background.)

The author uses only the most common 1,000 words of the English language to explain the operations of many modern technologies (e.g. laptops and helicopters) and scientific ideas (e.g. the workings of a cell or the sun.) It’s an intriguing question, and I can see why Munroe was interested in it. Can one convey the inner workings of objects like nuclear power plants or a tree with a rudimentary vocabulary? You can. Munroe does. However, the next question is, “Should you?” I come down on the side of “no.”

One might say, “But this is a book for kids [or people with a child-like grasp of language], you aren’t the target demographic.” Perhaps, but the book doesn’t do children any favors because the brainpower needed to puzzle out what the author is trying to convey through imprecise language can be more than is necessary to expand one’s vocabulary. [e.g. What do “tall road” or “shape checker” mean to you? If you went straight to “a bridge” and “a lock,” you may be more in tune with Munroe’s thinking than I, and thus more likely to find this book appealing.] For adults, it’s like reading essays by an eighth-grader who’s in no danger of being picked for the honor roll. Without the combination of the book’s graphics and a general background in science and technology, I suspect the book would be a muddle. I’m not against explaining ideas in simple terms, but I felt the book takes it too far and it becomes a distraction.

On the positive side, the graphics are great—sometimes funny while providing enough detail to get the point across without bogging one down. Also, Munroe’s sense of humor comes through here and there throughout the book (though it’s hampered by the lack of vocabulary.)

The book includes the list of words used as an Appendix (though you obviously won’t find the word “Appendix.”)

If it sounds like something that would interest you, pick it up. It’s hard to say that I’d recommend it, generally speaking. It’s funny and educational, but it’s also distracting and tedious. I neither hated it, nor loved it. I give it the median score of “meh.”

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BOOK REVIEW: What If? by Randall Munroe

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you like the tv show Mythbusters and snarky and / or silly humor, you’ll love Randall Munroe’s What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Munroe gained internet fame (still not the same as real fame) drawing the popular webcomic xkcd. The book’s subtitle says it all. Munroe solicited questions from his web-legion (not the same as a real legion) of fans, selected a collection that he found intriguing, and answers them with a mix of science and humor. Munroe’s bona fides to answer questions of a technical nature include a degree in physics from Christopher Newport University and a brief career as a roboticist for NASA—though he’s fond of pointing out that he’s just a web-cartoonist whenever his answers might be wrong.

Each chapter presents a detailed answer to one of the absurd hypothetical questions. Most of the chapters are just a few pages long and feature the same variety of stick-figure cartoon that grace the xkcd website. He covers 60-ish questions in the book. Scattered throughout the book are sections called “Weird (and Worrying) Questions” which usually don’t receive answers but merely cartoons that mock the demented mind that came up with said question. (If that seems harsh, keep in mind that many of the questions he does answer are pretty warped (e.g. setting off a nuke in a hurricane or whether steady rising would result in death by freezing or suffocation).)

Like the Mythbusters, Munroe does an excellent job of selecting questions that have unexpected answers. For example, the author addresses the question of what would happen if one went swimming in a spent fuel pool (nuclear fuel rods are stored underwater for a long time after they come out of the reactor before they can go to dry storage.) The answer: Nothing if one swam near the surface, but if you swam down and touched the casks, you’d die in minutes. Munroe also takes liberty to find the more interesting unintended consequences embedded in some of the questions. For example, he dismissively answers the old question about whether every human on the planet standing as close together as possible and jumping so as to land simultaneously would have any effect on the planet. Instead, he takes on the questions of the logistics of getting everyone to one place, how much space humanity would take up, and how / whether people could get out of this state of shoulder-to-shoulder proximity alive.

Some of the questions are impossible to answer with certainty but Munroe takes them on when he can offer reasonable, scientifically-based speculation. For example, what will the area that is currently New York City look like in a million years? His answer is more or less: Who cares? Humans will be long gone and veins of plastic in past landfills will be the only evidence that we ever existed. Another such question is how much power can Yoda achieve through application of the Force?

Besides the many physics question (e.g. What’s the fastest speed at which one can hit a speed bump and live?), there are others that involve mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Mathematics questions include calculations of the likelihood that one would find his or her soulmate if each person really only had one soul mate. (My Indian friends might be pleased to know that we’d all be screwed if that were the case.) There are actually many questions that hinge on mathematical calculations.

One of my favorite chapters is in the domain of chemistry, and it answers what would happen if one tried to make a wall by collecting together blocks of all of the elements in the periodic table in the relative position in which they exist on the table? Answer: Nothing good. There are a few biologically centered questions as well. Munroe takes on the question of how much computing power human brains collectively have—and the more interesting unasked question of how human “computing” is different from that of machines.

I’d highly recommend this book for science lovers. In fact, even people who don’t care for science may find this book palatable because of its humor and the fascinating questions it addresses.

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