Randall Munroe explains it all for us

Randall Munroe explains it all for us

This roboticist-turned-cartoonist's new book explains scientific concepts in the most basic English

Randall Munroe explains it all for us
When Randall Munroe is working, it can look a lot like procrastination. A typical work day for Munroe, a former NASA roboticist turned web cartoonist, often involves drawing funny stick figures, diving into Internet sinkholes while researching obscure topics or mulling over absurd hypotheticals.

Like what would happen if a pitcher threw a baseball at 90 per cent the speed of light (answer: a huge fireball would engulf the stadium), or how many model-rocket engines would it take to launch a real rocket into space (65,000, give or take).

But when Munroe, 31, is actually procrastinating, it can turn into work. That’s what happened three years ago, when he was playing a space video game. He started giving his rockets silly names, like Up Goer and Skyboat, then wondered if he could explain how a rocket ship works using only the simplest terms.

So he drafted a detailed rendering of the Saturn V rocket that launched astronauts to the moon, working off a blueprint from NASA’s archives. In his annotations, he limited himself to a rudimentary vocabulary, labelling the boosters as the spot where “lots of fire comes out” and the oxygen chambers as a place with “cold air for burning and breathing.”

That diagram became the basis for his new book, “Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.” The oversized, illustrated book consists of annotated blueprints with deceptively spare language, explaining the mechanics behind concepts like data centres, smartphones, tectonic plates, nuclear reactors and the electromagnetic spectrum.

In his explanations, Munroe avoided technical jargon and limited himself to the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language. This barred him from using words like helium and uranium, a challenge when describing how a rocket ship or reactor works.
“The word limit is fun, because it forces you to think about it some more,” Munroe said, with the calm swagger of someone offering to fight with one hand tied behind his back.

“Thing Explainer,” which came out last month with a hefty first printing of 3,00,000 copies, is already generating excitement among Munroe’s core audience of technophiles and alpha geeks. “It is a brilliant concept,” the Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates recently wrote in a glowing endorsement of the book on his blog, gatesnotes.com. “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it.”

Over the past decade, Munroe has won a cult following for his quirky web comics about science, math, technology and relationships. Prominent fans of his offbeat brand of nerd humour include fantasy writer Neil Gaiman; actor Wil Wheaton, from the science-heavy sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”; and Andy Weir, author of the best-selling novel “The Martian.”

“I’m a nerd, I like science and I like science humour,” Weir, a former computer programmer, said when explaining the appeal of  Munroe’s books. “I’m dead in the centre of his demographic.”

Lately, however, Munroe’s following has expanded far beyond his early audience of computer programmers and physics graduate students to include mainstream readers who are curious about how stuff works.

His 2014 book, “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions,” became an unexpected hit. It sold around 6,25,000 copies, and turned Munroe into a sort of science and tech guru to the masses.

His path from underground cartoonist to best-selling author reflects a broader cultural shift that has occurred as science and technology increasingly saturate our lives, from wearable computers to cars equipped with artificial intelligence.

Science is seeping into popular books, movies and TV shows, with characters and plots grounded in quantum physics (“The Big Bang Theory”), astrophysics (“Interstellar”) and computer programming (“Steve Jobs,” “The Social Network”).

“The Martian,” about an astronaut stranded on Mars that includes thorny passages focusing on botany, biochemistry and physics, has sold more than 2 million copies, and was adapted into a blockbuster film starring Matt Damon that has made more than $213 million at the domestic box office. “After decades of being just the domain of nerds, science is edging its way more and more into daily life,” Weir said. “Science is starting to become cool.”

If it was ever uncool, Munroe was apparently not informed. As he strolled through an exhibition about the origins of the universe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York one afternoon this fall, he gushed enthusiastically about dark energy, the mysterious cosmic substance that scientists know next to nothing about. “Nobody has any clue what it is,” he said with obvious satisfaction.

Dark energy got him thinking about the puzzling physics underlying ice skating. “We don’t actually know how skates melt the ice,” he said. “You don’t even need to go into all this crazy cosmology to find stuff we don’t understand.”

Life in science

Growing up outside of Richmond, Virginia,  Munroe devoured popular science books like “The Way Things Work” and entered youth robotics competitions. In junior high, he asked his science teacher a question about how uranium decays, and the teacher gave him a physics textbook. He majored in physics at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, and minored in math and computer science.

In college, he got an internship at NASA’s Langley Research Centre working on virtual reality systems, and then took a job in NASA’s robotics navigation lab. “My job was to keep the robot from running into walls, and it kept running into walls,”  Munroe said. “I guess robotics is hard.”

Munroe had doodled for fun since first grade. (“My drawing has not improved since then,” he said.) In 2005, while still in college, he started posting his droll stick-figure comics on his website, xkcd.com. First, they circulated among his friends. Then, other bloggers took notice and traffic boomed.

When his NASA contract expired in 2006, he decided to pursue his cartooning hobby full time, and started selling xkcd T-shirts, posters and mugs. He published a collection of his comics through a small press in 2010, and sold more than 100,000 copies.

With his books and comics, Munroe has built a career as a lifelong amateur who flits from one esoteric topic to the next, something he feels he never could have done had he pursued a career in physics. He still vividly remembers when a college professor told him he needed to develop a subspecialty in physics if he wanted to advance in the field. He found that prospect deeply unappealing.

“‘You can’t have all the candy store,’ is what he said. ‘You have to pick,’” Munroe said. “I was really lucky to hit on the career where I can have all the candy in the candy store.”

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