One of the cool things about studying science and engineering is finding out how things work. One of the neatest things about being a parent is teaching my kids about the wonders of the world--both natural and technological--around us. However, having done the first does not necessarily equip me to do the second. Randall Munroe’s recent book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words provides a partial solution.
In some circles Munroe is much better known for his internet comic xkcd, which boasts a lot of geek jokes. He’s also a former NASA roboticist, so he brings that background to the table, combining technical acumen with strong illustration skills to present a unique offering to the curious of the world.
The basic premise of Thing Explainer that many technologies are a mystery because of the terminology used to explain them and not because the technology is overwhelmingly complex. Munroe carefully diagrams 44 different things and explains them using only the 1000 most common words in the English language.
Among the objects explained are a nuclear reactor, elevators, weather maps, a tree, the U.S. Constitution, the USS Constitution, a human cell, a submarine and more. The list is long and varied and extends to many different types of interest.
I do not have the technical acumen to evaluate all of the descriptions and explanations that Munroe provides. However, having been a submariner, I can say that his diagram and explanation of a nuclear submarine is sufficiently accurate and informative. Also, having been an instructor at a commercial nuclear power plant, I will attest to the quality of his description of that technology. There are a few places where I could quibble, but generalizations are necessary and sometimes the differences between the modes of operation explain the apparent inaccuracies. Overall, I think that this book is remarkably accurate and informative.
Thing Explainer is entertaining. The diagrams are engaging. The level of detail is high so that as we flip through the volume it continues to delight with new discoveries. This is not a book that will be once read and quickly discarded. There are detailed explanations of the various labeled parts of all the diagrams, which give opportunity for reading and rereading. The adults in my house have both enjoyed reading this book.
The entertainment value extends to our children. My son (6) thoroughly enjoys looking at the pictures and as an emerging reader is able to figure out most of the words. The girls haven’t been as interested, but it’s there when they want it. This is a really great volume to have on the shelf for kids to pull out when they are bored or curious. I’m hoping that it inspires a growing interest in engineering for all of our children.
Munroe’s explanations are good, in that they reasonably accurately depict the function and operation of the various objects he is describing. This is helpful in breaking through the technical jargon into real understanding. The weakness of this approach, however, is that even if the reader understands the technology she will not be able to communicate with experts in the field. Since Munroe doesn’t give the actual names of the components, but uses roundabout ways to describe them (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile = Machines for Burning Cities), this means that someone can understand how something works and still sound silly when trying to explain it to someone else. Given the option, I’ll still use this as an introduction and a means to increase curiosity in my kids, but the approach brings its own limitations.
NOTE: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.