How I got confused by Randall Munroe’s new book on science

I had a chance the other day to glance through Randall Munroe’s new book Thing Explainer (Houghton Mifflin 2015), explaining science and technology in ‘simple’ language.

Soyuz TMA spacecraft. Public domain, via Wikipedia, re-saved as JPG without transparent background. Click to enlarge.
A ‘space boat’, apparently. To me it’s a Soyuz TMA spacecraft. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

It’s something New Scientist has been trying for a while, too. And it’s great to see science presented in straight-forward ways. It’s important.

The problem I’ve got is that the conceit – rendering the text in the most common thousand words in English – doesn’t work.

Monroe says it’s in the style of ‘Up Goer Five’, which I then had to look up because I had no idea what he meant. Was it a ‘thing’? Was it the name for the approach he’d taken?

Can anybody guess what an ‘Up Goer Five’ is? Eventually I found out it’s a Saturn V rocket, renamed using two of the thousand most common English words, plus a gerund form of a third. But why can’t Munroe just call it a ‘rocket’, its generic common name – which I knew and understood perfectly well when I was six and NASA was slinging Saturn V’s off to the Moon. I think anybody else would understand that too.

This wasn’t an isolated issue. I mean, what is ‘sky bag air’?* I’m not the only one to level this criticism at Munroe – Bill Gates said he wished Monroe had used a few more terms, including ‘helium’ instead of ‘funny voice air’. (Just to nail the point, I think ‘funny voice air’ could equally refer to sulphur hexafluoride.)

To me, using a pile of words not previously associated with what’s being explained isn’t ‘simplifying’ for two reasons. First is that you end up having to figure out what the new name refers to.

But the second – and to me overwhelming reason why Munroe’s approach doesn’t ‘simplify’ – is that learning the proper terms for things is an integral part of understanding how stuff works. As far as I’m concerned, Munroe’s missed that point. Why? I suspect the mistake has been to confuse ‘very limited vocabulary’ with ‘ease of understanding’.

His conceit might work for non-English speakers trying to puzzle out the English meaning. But for those who do speak it, ways of conveying concepts simply – and with the jargon explained – are already well known. Newspapers, for instance, are deliberately pitched for an 8-12 year reading age, and journalists have to learn how to write to suit.

To me, simple explanation has less to do with vocabulary than technique. Clarity is a function of four main factors, of which vocabulary is the least important – because the meaning of any word can always be explained. The other factors – in order from least to most vital – start with word length. This, by nature, usually restricts vocabulary, except for two-syllable words like tmesis.** Next is sentence length. But over all of this is the big daddy of simple writing – structure, both of specific phrasing and of the overall writing. This is crucial. By nature, we think in simultaneous concepts. The written sentence, however, is a linear thread. The trick is to organise those ideas in ways that can be written down as a thread.

It’s a particular skill, it’s a learned skill – and it’s one of the key tools that allows writers to pitch their work to specific audiences and age-groups, and to outline things in ways that are easy to understand. And if jargon intrudes – well, properly structured text should explain it.


And as far as science for all of us is concerned, go check out Thea Beckman’s blog Why? Because Science. She’s nailed it.

Oh, and here’s somebody else demonstrating what I mean about sulphur hexafluoride. ‘Funnier voice air’, really.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

* It’s hydrogen, apparently – from ‘sky bag’, meaning ‘airships’, a reference that in turn relies on first knowing the history of Zeppelins and what lifted them.

** Tmesis. A common English grammatic structure in which the phrasal verb is separated from its conjoined words, or a particle, by another word. The term is derived from the ancient Greek ‘to cut’. What do I mean? I often say ‘unbe-fucking-lievable’, which in technical terms is a slightly mutant tmesis because the particle (un-) isn’t the point of split. But it’s a tmesis nonetheless. Now you know.


14 thoughts on “How I got confused by Randall Munroe’s new book on science

  1. Having trained in the sciences, history and then the law, I’ll be frank that I’m a huge non-fan of simplifying the language. It just dumbs it down.

    The law went through a big fad in this direction some years ago, with the net result that a lot of legal briefs reached the introductory children’s literature stage. “See car. See car go through red light. See car crash. Bad driver, bad.” The trend ended predictably as it became obvious that it was impossible to express subtle notions or precise thoughts in this fashion. And it sounded stupid. Of course damage was done, a lot of great old Latin phrases that were used for precise legal concepts were abandoned on the thought that adding a paragraph of simple English was better than using a single line of Latin maxim. Oh well.

    There’s some thought that various cultures do well in sciences or engineering because their languages are suited for it. I don’t know if that’s correct or not, but what is clear is that human beings are capable of learning vast vocabularies. While some believe that the early roots of English contained very few words, we know from even way back that the trend was to make up and add to the language whenever it suited the speaker or writer. The same is still true, which is why efforts like this not only read poorly, but are self defeating. In trying to avoid those complicated words, we just invent new ones.

    Better off to use the words that exist. Maybe even try teaching a few of them to students.

    1. Learning new words and terms is an integral part to learning how things work because, often, they are of themselves the simplest way of conveying a concept. There have certainly been attempts to identify languages that are allegedly ‘better’ than others at conceptual expression – but I don’t really think there is anything to choose between them.

    1. The drawings are cool, and he’s nailed a lot of the science – it ‘s the ‘double translation’ that gets me, especially when some of the words being avoided, like ‘microwave’, are so well known. Kind of gimmicky.

    1. I agree. The Germans seem to have a lot of words that seem to be literal phrases describing the object or action. Often then abbreviated or made into an acronym (C-stoff for hydrazine, if memory serves here…).

  2. You know I love your blog and usually agree with you. But doesn’t it seem a bit unfair to bash an author when you only “… had a chance the other day to glance through [his] new book”? I haven’t read it (yet) so I don’t know if perhaps Monroe introduced the “Up Goer Five” in an earlier chapter. But I can tell you that I loved his previous work, “What If?” because it made complicated IDEAS more accessible to the scientifically uninitiated. And ultimately, isn’t good writing about transcending the words themselves to communicate an idea? If you decide to actually read the book I’ll be curious to hear what you think about Monroe’s word choice, word length, sentence structure, and information hierarchy. But to write such a critical piece without having actually read the book seems unfair, Matthew. I’m sure you’d feel the same if someone criticized one of your works after having only glanced through it.
    PS: I am in no way affiliated with or related to the author, except that our great-great-great-great-great-grandparents probably came from the same desolate corner of Scotland. Though I did enjoy his first book. 🙂

    1. Fair point – though perhaps I shouldn’t have said ‘glance’. I am a huge fan of XKCD and I think Munroe has done a fantastic job of making science accessible in general. My thrust wasn’t in reviewing Munro’s book but to comment on the technique used to select the words in it, which isn’t his alone, which has been widely discussed (especially by New Scientist) and which I think doesn’t really work. I checked with a professional educator who told me that this isn’t how education works – these days kids need stretching and one way to do that is to improve their vocabulary.

      The idea seems to have originated with Munroe but the detail was apparently invented by Theo Sanderson, who wrote a small online app for it after being inspired by an XKCD cartoon of the Saturn 5, and it’s been toyed with by New Scientist, who’ve published explanatory articles using the same vocabulary – this is where I was first exposed to the idea, and I didn’t think much of it in the ‘New Scientist’ column either. There’s also a blog set up by Chris Rowan and Anne Jefferson with reader submissions in the same style. Feedback I’ve seen is all along the same lines: ‘Up-Goer speak’ is a nice idea, but too restrictive and it’s better to learn a few terms – and explain them – than restrict the vocabulary so tightly.

      Aside from its linguistic conceit, the book itself – which I have open in front of me as I write this – is pretty impressive. It’s heavily illustrated and includes the Saturn V diagram (split over two pages). Munroe has pretty much covered all the bases of basic science and gadgetry; microwaves (sorry, ‘food-heating radio box’), how computers, jet engines, aircraft, batteries, how the Sun works, cellphones, what light is, how bridge engineering works, helicopter auto-rotation, and a pile of other stuff. There’s a two-page fold out which is pretty cool with geology on one side and motor mechanics on the other.

      But that conceit with the renaming of things still rankles. For instance, on p. 17 Munroe describes a ‘shape checker’. What’s that? Eventually I figured out it’s a padlock. And obviously, the principle of operation is to match the shape of a key against the cylinders inside. But it’s not obvious when the common name is padlock. And it took me the whole of p. 32 to figure out what a ‘big tiny thing hitter’ is – I eventually found out it was the Large Hadron Collider because it says so in very tiny lettering on the contents page. But to me, that explanation really missed the 8-ball.

      1. Thank you for your excellent and thoughtful response, Matthew. I’m glad “glance” was just a word choice issue, because it didn’t seem like you to take such umbrage with something based on a quick glance. 🙂 I also better understand your position with the additional samples you’ve provided and agree that sometimes it’s best to just call a spade a spade. (I never would have associated “shape checker” with “padlock” either, for example.) OK, then. I’m glad to see we don’t actually disagree after all, because you’re one of my barometers for sanity on the Internet! Cheers to you, and thank you again for taking the time to respond.

  3. Why use one word when four will suffice, right? Yeah, this irks me as well. I could “simplify” water by breaking it down into hydrogen and oxygen, but then it’s not really water anymore, is it? Am I using a cylindrical wooden writing tool filled with graphite or is it a pencil? I think you really nailed it when you pointed out that learning terms is part of the education process. I’d hate to have someone try to explain how an internal combustion engine worked without using the correct name of the parts. Not having read the book I can only work on the examples you’ve cited, but it almost feels as though the author wrote in a condescending tone. Thanks for sharing that, Matthew.

    1. I wouldn’t call his tone condescending, as such – he’s put a lot of witty comments in, within the vocabulary conceit. But it’s definitely laborious and to me the conceit that a narrow vocabulary is ‘simple’ is also facile. An orang-utan named Chantek was taught a 2000 word vocabulary in the 1990s, and a chimp named Panbanisha managed a 3000-word one. As I understand it, the average four year old human has a 5000 word vocabulary, by 8 it’s up to 10,000; and I believe, on average, we learn a new word a day, every day, from then into adulthood.

      So from that perspective it’s hard to understand why something has to be restricted to just 20 percent of a four year old’s vocabulary and half an orang-utan’s. The circumlocutions needed to avoid a word that, very likely, would be known to a four year old (or an orang-utan) defeat the clarity that would follow if the word (like ‘microwave’) was used. The conceit isn’t unique to Munroe, but to me it doesn’t work. The book itself is brilliant in concept – but let down in detailed execution by that conceit.

  4. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I can easily understand the confusion. For me, a ‘sky bag’ sounds like something cloud-like. Earlier this week I learned about ‘phrasal verbs’; now today it’s ‘tmesis’ which just happens to relate to phrasal verbs but was not mentioned in the other article. That aside, I agree with Matthew. You can’t necessarily use what makes sense to you, and need to go with what makes sense to the other person. That was one of the harder jobs with being a nurse. I loved the teaching aspect, but was always needing to come up with ways to better explain medical terms.

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