Book Review: Thing Explainer, by Randall Munroe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_thing_explainerAnybody who is interested in things should have this book. It is for kids who want big science told small, and for adults who lack a degree in practical science (or the associated vocabulary), but who are still interested in knowing why. Munroe has written one previous book – What If?, giving serious answers to silly questions – and is the man behind xkcd, a hilarious popular science blog.

I just have to say first up, that Munroe’s editor deserves a round of applause. I am sure that Munroe did his absolute best to keep within the 1000 words he assigned himself – the 1000 most common words in the English language – but surely the odd “particle” must have jumped in, not to mention “cell” (tiny bags of water you’re made of). The marginal notes must have been things of wonder.

Somehow, not only does Munroe write informatively, he also manages quirky asides throughout his incredibly detailed diagrams of everything from the ‘Shared Space House’ (space station), to ‘Bags of Stuff inside you’ (the human torso), ‘Computer building’ (data center), to the easiest-to-understand diagram of what is in the front of your car (under the bonnet) I have ever seen. I can see myself referring to this frequently, given I’m not even 100% on where the water for the window-wipers goes!

The explanations of hard things in simple language are equally effective without pictures. Munroe has tackled the US Constitution very well. The second amendment is stated, “Since having well-trained normal people with guns is important for keeping the country safe, no stopping people from having guns.” He even manages to explain the way in which their leaders are chosen clearly, no mean feat!

As well as engineering explanations, of machines like microwaves, washing machines, the Large Hadron Collider and clothes dryers; Munroe tackles the botany of trees, as well as the parasites that live off and around them, the tree of life (evolution), meteorology, geology (stuff in the earth we can burn), and of course the most hilarious explanation of the Table of Elements I’ve come across. Though would it have killed him to use some numbers so we can be sure we ‘got’ them all!? Also, the ‘How to Count Things’ page was so simple as to be complicated, unfortunately!

The book as a whole is an onslaught of information, designed to be peeked at for a laugh and learn session occasionally, which may just lead you to devour it as a whole. It is a book designed to lie around. Perhaps put it on your table to look at while eating your toast, ensuring your breakfast not only fuels your body, but enriches your mind. Ideal for ages 8 to 99.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words
by Randall Munroe
Published by John Murray
ISBN 9781473620919

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