Wednesday, 2 December 2015

New Book Review--Thing Explainer

Make way for the new best book ever!  Randall Munroe of xkcd and What If? fame has done it again and written a fantastic volume that clearly and not-so-clearly explains how things work, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. My boys and I are in dry-wit geek heaven!

Have you ever talked to a bright 3-year old? They have so many questions and are starting to learn bigger concepts but their vocabulary hasn't caught up with their understanding. So the challenge comes in figuring out how to describe something using words and experiences they can relate to.  I've often enjoyed the comedy of Jim Gaffigan and he has a prime example:

Child: Look, Daddy, a stick.
Dad: It's not a stick it's an antenna.
Child: What's an antenna?
Dad:...Uh... it's a stick.

Here are examples from many years ago with my sons.

Son 1: What are grapes made out of?
Me: Grape guts.
Son 2: What are tongs made out of?
Me: Scissors with no knives.

Sometimes answers come easily and sometimes I'd struggle for explanations and sometimes... total prevarication.

Son: What about...?
Me: Wanna popsicle?

Nowadays, everyone is a bit older and we're interested in different things and our dinner table conversation can include some esoteric subjects (and I should mention we're all Big Bang Theory fans).  Like last night, someone posed the question, "What's the difference between string theory and loop theory?" After a quick search online, I found "String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity for Dummies" (apropos, I thought) and read about 3 paragraphs.  So we had just enough understanding to pose some questions but not enough to know if the questions were even valid. My daughter's turn, "I think that string theory is the more accurate one because if loop theory were real, light would bend around us and there would be no shadows."  Well.  I guess it's time for Mom to do more research!

But, it really highlights the fact that trying to explain something to someone means you have to really know what you're talking about to help them understand. Who could say it better than Albert Einstein, world renowned physicist and teacher?

"If you can't understand it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

Randall Munroe takes this to a new and humorous level. Using the"ten hundred words in our language that people use the most", he explains the workings of a vast variety of things.  From simple machines that we use everyday;"boxes that make clothes smell better" (washer and dryer) and "writing sticks" (pen and pencil) to things that not many people understand the workings of, "Machine for burning cities" (nuclear bomb) and "big tiny thing hitter" (Large Hadron Collider), we have to make sure we understand for ourselves what makes up these items and processes.  We have to reverse-engineer our own vocabulary to make sure we understand the actual basic contents of the subject.

In the Thing Explainer, you will find the term "tiny bags of water" but you won't see the word "cells".  You'll read about the "big tiny thing hitter" but you won't read the words, "particle accelerator". And this is where the true genius lies.  Vocabulary is important (of course, I'm a librarian, scientist and all-around book-nerd) but not at the expense of understanding.  It's not enough to toss around big words if you don't know the concepts beneath them.  And why not laugh your way through?  So as my kids and I giggle our way through these explanations, we are also making sure we embrace the importance of true understanding.

(And for Big Bang Theory fans, you can consider this the anti-Sheldon book of physics.  Instead of using the biggest words to explain a concept so that nobody can understand it, it uses small words for everyone to enjoy.)

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