THING EXPLAINED

How to explain an iPhone using only the 1,000 most common English words

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If you’ve ever tried to talk about tech or science with a five-year-old, 85-year-old, or speaker of another language, you’re familiar with this problem: It’s really hard to explain everyday one-word concepts like “wifi,” “GPS,” “Bluetooth,” “atoms,” “orbit,” and “energy.” This kind of conversation can become an endless semiotic exercise, in which words only have meanings insofar as their meanings have meanings.

In a new book, Randall Munroe, creator of popular webcomic xkcd, offers a helpful suggestion: When it comes to complex topics, draw only from the 1,000 most commonly used words in your language. It’s difficult at first, but using only the simplest words to describe extraordinarily complex ideas and things yields pretty fun, sometimes illuminating, results. A few translations:

periodic table = “the pieces everything is made of”
Large Hadron Collider = “big tiny thing hitter”
nuclear bomb = “machine for burning cities”

Munroe’s book, Thing Explainer, out yesterday (Nov. 24) from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, tackles all these concepts and more, using diagrams and labels anyone can understand.

In his playful explanation of a smart phone, or “hand computer,” Munroe explains the tiny motor that allows the phone to vibrate:

“Pocket mover: This piece of metal turns very fast to make the phone move. That way, it can get your attention without making too much noise. (Unless it’s sitting on a hard table; then it can make a lot of noise.)”

The GPS sensor is a “direction feeler,” an SD card slot is an “extra memory holder,” and the chip that communicates with your wifi, a “hot spot talker.”

handcomputer
(Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Munroe’s book is full of ingenious explanations and sprinkled with factoids: In the “water room” (or toilet and sink—what he calls “one of the best things humans have ever built”), we learn that hot “water bringers” (faucets) are on the left because:

“In the past, water bringers had a hand-powered water pusher. They put it on the right side, since most people are right handed. They only brought cold water. When we started adding hot-water bringers, we put them on the other side, since people were used to the cold-water bringer being where it was.”

Some explanations are more for giggles than illumination: Munroe’s name for NASA’s Saturn V rocket is “US Space Team’s Up Goer Five.”

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