Thursday, April 27, 2017

Explaining Things

Science can be hard.  Even the most basic concepts involve specific terminology and jargon that are often challenging to understand.  What if there was a source out there, providing scientifically accurate information about complex topics, but in language that was available to most English speakers?  Look no further than Randall Munroe's new book Thing Explainer.  The conceit of the book is that it does a deep dive into things like nuclear energy, cellular structure, and the periodic table, but does so only using the 1,000 most frequently used words in the English language.  A list of these words appears at the end of the book.

What the author does masterfully is take multifaceted, often technical ideas and explain them in the most simple language.  This allows people of all language and education levels to learn and appreciate the concepts.  You won't need an advanced degree in engineering or chemistry to be able to understand the things that are explained.  What truly make this book special are the illustrations that appear on each page.  Resembling blueprints, they highlight the component parts of each item, like the parts of a rocket in the photo at left.  These chunks of text also are crafted from the 1,000 most commonly used English words.

When I mention that the author uses simple language, I'm not being facetious.  Instead of human cells, the author refers to them as "tiny bags of water you're made up of", a rocket is an "up goer", and the periodic table is "the pieces everything is made up of".  The verbiage is incredibly simple, which on one hand is really helpful because it widens the population who might comprehend and appreciate the science.  I could certainly imagine these items appearing in science textbooks.

On the other hand, I wonder if there comes a point when you simplify topics to such an extent that you mitigate or diminish the value of the knowledge itself.  At what point does the concept lose significance and meaning, when described in such base terms?  By simplifying the text so excessively, and adhering to the restrictive language conceit, is there any harm being done to the intricacies and nuances of the scientific accomplishments?  If the purpose of Thing Explainer is to function as a gateway for further, more in-depth scientific study, then I wholeheartedly praise its brilliance and acknowledge its place in the scientific community.  But, if this book is read as a definitive handbook, without additional scholarship or investigation, then I worry that the depth and breadth of scientific inquiry will be negatively impacted.

To be able to distill complex processes into the most basic language is quite a feat.  It broadens the audience for people who might be interested in more specialized concepts but lack the specialized education to fully appreciate them.  Thing Explainer demonstrates the skill of the author, not only in the language but also the clear and concise diagrams that accompany that language.  The drawback is that this simplistic language limits the practical information that is presented.  It's almost kitsch; simple language for its own sake.  I enjoyed the book, and would consider it most appropriate for a younger reader who is interested in science and technology.  For a more adult reader, especially one with a basic science education, this book may read as a bit juvenile and silly.

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