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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Simple physics
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Simple physics

A book that helps to explain complicated scientific or technical terms using only a thousand most commonly used words in English

Munroe’s sketch of a skyscraper in ‘Thing Explainer.’Premium
Munroe’s sketch of a skyscraper in ‘Thing Explainer.’

How does one explain complicated scientific or technical terms with only a thousand most commonly used words in English? Explaining without jargon would be hard enough, but with just a thousand commonly used words?

Take, for instance, the microwave oven. Have you ever wondered how this ubiquitous appliance heats food so quickly? And why is it that the food becomes hot but not the plastic container? I did a Google search, and this is what I gathered: A microwave oven has a magnetron that produces microwaves, much like the short-wavelength radio waves that travel at the speed of light (300,000km or 186,000 miles per second). These waves “agitate" water molecules in food and generate heat. The waves have no impact on the plastic or glass containers.

To someone not familiar with technical terms, this is as close to rocket science as it gets. But the same answer would be easy to grasp if, say, we put it the way Randall Munroe (of cult Web comic Xkcd fame) writes in his new book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff In Simple Words. He describes a microwave oven as a food-heating radio box. “These boxes use radio waves to heat food. Radio waves push on the tiny pieces water is made of and make them go faster. When tiny pieces in something go faster, that thing gets hotter." There are elaborate sketches that look like blueprints, all beautifully annotated, and not a single technical term.

Munroe, a former roboticist from Nasa, the US space agency, is also the author of the 2014 best-seller, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers To Absurd Hypothetical Questions. In Thing Explainer ( 629 on Amazon India), he deconstructs a range of things—from an iPhone to the International Space Station—by using only the thousand most common words in the English language. He doesn’t even use the word “thousand" because it doesn’t figure in the list; instead, he says “the ten hundred words in our language that people use the most".

Some years ago, Munroe drew a sketch of the Saturn V rocket on Xkcd, and annotated it by using “only the 1,000 most frequent words in English". He described the rocket as “Up Goer Five". That drawing was a big hit, and became the starting point for this book.

In Thing Explainer, an elevator is a “lifting room", a nuclear weapon is a “machine for burning cities", aeroplanes are “sky boats", and tectonic plates the “big fat rocks we live on". My favourite is a “big tiny thing hitter"—for the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator. There are a few places where you might feel that the words he uses do not ideally explain the concept or thing, but he makes up for it with his fine sketches. To me, that is the joy of this book. His poster-size sketch of a skyscraper is a piece of art.

Bill Gates calls the book “a wonderful guide for curious minds". I am not a regular at Xkcd, nor have I read What If?, but what really made me a Munroe fan was an article he wrote in The New Yorker magazine, titled “The Space Doctor’s Big Idea". This is how it starts:

“There once was a doctor with cool white hair. He was well known because he came up with some important ideas. He didn’t grow the cool hair until after he was done figuring that stuff out, but by the time everyone realized how good his ideas were, he had grown the hair, so that’s how everyone pictures him. He was so good at coming up with ideas that we use his name to mean ‘someone who’s good at thinking’."

You can probably guess what it’s about: Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The beauty of this marvellous piece is that it was written using only the thousand most common words.

There’s a nice quote attributed to the physicist Ernest Rutherford (or is it Einstein?): “If you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid, it is probably not very good physics." There are variations of the theme, such as, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother". In essence, keep it as simple as possible.

If you want to try explaining something using only these thousand words, you can check your text at www.xkcd.com/simplewriter.

Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.

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Updated: 23 Mar 2016, 02:34 AM IST
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