December 24, 2015


Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. By Randall Munroe. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.95.

     This review will not even attempt to do what Randall Munroe does in Thing Explainer. If it had attempted to do the same thing, it would have failed before its headline was finished. That is because one word in the headline is not among the thousand – sorry, “ten hundred” – words people use the most, and those are the words Munroe uses to explain everything in this book. Can you find the word? It is “indeed.” Very good!

     Really, what Munroe has done here is something amazing. He has taken extremely complex concepts, some from everyday life and some that are more abstruse, and worked down to their basics. Their very basics. The level of understanding that Munroe must possess in order to provide these explanations is substantial. And the level needed to explain in the words he has chosen to use – there is a list at the back of the book – is truly impressive, akin in its own way to the marvel of Dr. Seuss writing The Cat in the Hat using only 236 words.

     Thing Explainer is a book that not only explains how things work but also gives readers a whole new perspective on items with which they only thought they were familiar. For example, it is not difficult to see that the page called “Food-Heating Radio Box” refers to a microwave oven – many people already know that radio waves are what these ovens use for heating and cooking, and the diagram on the page looks like a picture of a microwave oven except for Munroe’s humorous interpolation of names for the many rarely used buttons (humor being one defining characteristic of Thing Explainer). Thus, there are three buttons labeled “controls you actually use,” and they are “time heat,” “how hot,” and “just be a timer” – notice that there is some humor even in these simple-words labels. In addition, there are 18 buttons collectively labeled “lots of other controls they always add even though no one ever wants them,” and these include “plastic food,” “leaves,” “knives,” “flowers,” “teeth,” “money” and “fire.” Real microwaves do not have these labels, of course, but they might as well, given how infrequently the multiple settings on microwaves are usually used – so Munroe’s humor here makes a good point. At the same time, his explanation of how a microwave does what it does is scientifically accurate and really does make the appliance’s function intelligible in the simplest possible way. For instance, the mesh in the door is the “radio wave stopper,” which “stops radio waves from getting out,” because although “they can’t really hurt you…they could hurt other radios or make little flashes of light.” Munroe even manages to tell readers why microwaves and computer hot spots operate at exactly the same wavelengths, and why ice remains in foods even after microwave ovens heat them.

     All this is highly informative and clearly shows what makes a common, easily identifiable object work. But the very next page of Thing Explainer shows a different aspect of the book. It is all about a “shape checker.” And what might that be? It is not at all clear from the diagram, which shows a rectangular something-or-other with something sticking out of the top that is shaped like the letter U, but upside-down and with one side longer than the other. Within the rectangular object are five parallel tubes of some kind. What exactly could this thing be? Well, Munroe explains that the rectangle is a “strong box” that “stops you from touching or seeing the inside of the machine.” The inverted-U-shaped thing has a “bar pusher” at one end and, at the other, a “tooth pusher” that “pushes the tooth into [a] hole, so you can’t get it out by shaking the machine.” The five parallel thingies are “stick pushers,” and at the very bottom of the “strong box” is a “turner hole.” This highly mysterious item turns out to be – an ordinary lock. Munroe calls it a “shape checker” because it “checks whether you have a piece of metal with a certain shape. If you do, it lets go of whatever it’s holding on to.” This is a remarkably perceptive and fascinatingly phrased description of what a lock is and how it works, and when Munroe gets to the point of “lying to the checker” – a section on lock picking – the whole discussion becomes even more intriguing.

     Complementing the full-page descriptions of many things in Thing Explainer are some foldouts. One goes with a description of “Earth’s surface,” where the otherwise unlabeled island of St. Helena is used for a short description of the entire career of Napoleon, who is never named but referred to as “a man [who] took over part of the world.” On the same foldout, Australia, also not named, has an arrow pointing to it with the words “big animals with big pockets,” and the note on the (yes, unnamed) Galápagos Islands says, “Someone once became very well known for going here to look at bird faces and learn how life works.” This is just one super-clever foldout. Another is at the back of the book: a really big foldout that shows a “Sky Toucher: A look inside a really tall house,” analyzing a skyscraper. This one includes “fear porches” (balconies that are very high up), “car slides” (ramps in the underground parking garage), “parts that don’t do anything” (because “sometimes people making buildings worry that they’ll look boring, so they put in holes or parts that stick out”), and a dinosaur (with the label “not allowed”).

     Throughout the book, Munroe’s wide-ranging scientific knowledge is paired with a truly delicious sense of humor – and his very simple yet exceedingly offbeat explanations will have readers first laughing, then searching for just what he is talking about. His periodic table, for example, is called “The Pieces Everything Is Made Of,” does not name a single element, and is a classic, or should be. It includes “metal that’s not very interesting,” “metal named after a god, but only after a long fight over what to call it,” and “metal used to make very fast sky boat pushers.” It also includes elements described in terms of how long they exist before decaying into something else: “stuff that lasts for an hour and a half,” “stuff that lasts for a day,” “stuff that lasts for two minutes,” “stuff that lasts for eight seconds,” and so on. This is wonderful, err, stuff. So is the page on “Tall Roads” (bridges), which explains the pluses and minuses of a “bendy road,” a “road hanging under a stronger shape,” a “road hanging from sticks,” and much more, and includes the admonition, “When you hold up a road by hanging it, you have to be very careful” about the effects of wind.  In fact, all the pages here are absolutely marvelous, and although the oversize book has only 60-some pages (it’s a little hard to know how to count the foldouts), it is so detailed and written with such careful quirkiness, such quirky care, that it manages to be intriguing and eccentric enough to engage readers for a lot more time than a typical multi-hundred-page novel requires. Thing Explainer explains things of all sorts, and it also sends readers out on their own to learn just what Munroe’s seemingly simple descriptions refer to. This is a true voyage of discovery to parts that, if not really unknown, are highly unfamiliar in the simplicity of the complexity with which they are here analyzed, described and wonderfully elucidated.

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