Could you explain the US Constitution, the Large Hadron Collider or the workings of the nuclear bomb using predominantly one- and two-syllable words?
Randall Munroe of xkcd fame can and does in his new book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words (2015).
Munroe, best known for his webcomic about “romance, sarcasm, math and language”, used to be a roboticist for NASA.
He has long been interested in explaining science to his massive readership. His project What if? gives serious answers to silly questions, such as:
Which has a greater gravitational pull on me: the Sun, or spiders? Granted, the Sun is much bigger, but it is also much further away, and as I learned in high school physics, the gravitational force is proportional to the square of the distance.
Read the answer here, but only if you’re not arachnaphobic.
With Thing Explainer, Munroe has taken the principles of clear communication to what feels like their furthest extent, limiting himself to only the most common 1,000 words in English.
Where does scientific language come from?
To fully appreciate Munroe’s achievement, we need to go back at least a few centuries, to the later period of the Renaissance. Way back then, English was preparing itself for its part in the “Scientific Revolution”.
For the newly-emerging disciplines of science to get past their L-plates, they needed a special kind of language – new kinds of words, words that declared themselves to be distinct from those of everyday experience.
English borrowed from Latin and Greek and produced a specialised, technical vocabulary. From Latin came, among many others, the word “insect”, which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is a:
small air breathing arthropod having the body divided into three parts (head, thorax, abdomen) and having three pairs of legs and usually two pairs of wings.
An insect, unlike a bug, is a scientific concept – it’s an abstract bug.
To know “insect” you need to understand “arthropod”, and that means understanding “invertebrate” and “phylum” – the list goes on. Greek and Latin not only loaned us words but also their “morphology”. From “insect”, we can make all kinds of cool words, such as insectile, insectarium, insectivore, insecticide, even insectiferous.
Nominalisation: turning difficult ideas into words
But science isn’t simply about labelling phenomena in new ways. Science is for reasoning about complex phenomena in complex relations. To get this process up and running, Newton and his contemporaries needed the power of “nominalisation”.
This linguistic feature, more than any other, defines scientific discourse. Also known as “objectification”, “reification” – even “thingification” – nominalisation is the grammatical process of construing experience through nouns and their properties.
Nominalisation involves turning processes, qualities and relations into nouns, or components of “noun groups”. The emergence of this grammatical style enabled us to begin theorising physical, chemical and biological processes.
In this way, “moving” became “motion”, and from “motion” we could start to think about “speed”, “velocity” and “acceleration”. We could also begin to theorise forces, such as “inertia”, which led us on to create concepts such as the “moment of inertia” or “angular acceleration”.
Nominalisations get more and more complex, until we get sentences like this one, an explanation of “moment of inertia” from Wikipedia, which can be broken down into the following components:
Science needs to be informationally dense to do the work we expect of it and, once the “nominalising” genie was out of the bottle, scientific language got a life of its own.
And here we are now, in the 21st century, more in love than ever with a grammar that’s obsessed with turning human experience into things, which we can count, measure, taxonomize, systematize, associate or correlate.
Scientific language is prestigious, even magical. It can make us believe all kinds of things. Nominalisation is what makes it hard to distinguish science from pseudoscience.
Munroe’s beautiful explanations offer an almost complete deconstruction of this co-evolution of scientific knowledge and scientific discourse – limited, as they are, to the 1,000 most common words in English.
It is not entirely clear how Munroe compiled his list of common words (since he confined himself to only words on his list). He appears to have consulted large “corpora” or banks of English text, particularly fiction.
Munroe’s book comes with a web interface, where you can test out your own writing against Munroe’s lists. The “simple writer” will tell you which words you have used that are not on his list.
To demonstrate, here’s a short extract, again from the Wikipedia page for Moment of inertia, with all the out-of-bounds words – as highlighted by “simple writer” – in bold:
The moment of inertia, otherwise known as the angular mass or rotational inertia, of a rigid body determines the torque needed for a desired angular acceleration about a rotational axis. It depends on the body’s mass distribution and the axis chosen, with larger moments requiring more torque to change the body’s rotation. It is an extensive (additive) property: the moment of inertia of a composite system is the sum of the moments of inertia of its component subsystems (all taken about the same axis). One of its definitions is the second moment of mass with respect to distance from an axis r, I = \int_m r2 \mathrm dm , integrating over the entire mass.
You can see how few words in this explanation would be allowed in Thing Explainer.
Making complex words out of simple words put together
The most beautiful thing about Munroe’s language is that, by forcing himself to work within his constraints, his scientific explanations are populated with humans.
Not only does his mode of explanation lend itself to directly addressing the reader, but the work that humans do to build these things, or to understand these phenomena, is made clear.
Ironically, Munroe, like Newton, could not do this job without “nominalisation”. In the fine print under his list of common words, Munroe notes he allowed himself to use the “‘thing’ forms of ‘doing’ words”, and he cites two examples: “talker” and “goer”. But his use of nominalisation goes well beyond those items.
In explaining the “food-heating radio box”, the “city-burning machines” and “sky-watching stations”, the verbs “heating” “burning” and “watching” no longer function as verbs. Structurally, they have become adjectives which subclassify phenomena.
In other words, they have been recruited to the job of creating more complex things.
And Munroe also shows how science developed its predilection for information density. Even with this beautiful plain style, and his word restriction, Munroe coins a term like “food-heating radio box wave size”.
Even clear explanations of complex phenomena require information packaging.
If you are really into science, little, everyday words can only take you so far. Scientific language is not full of jargon just to keep people out.
It’s the “jargon” that shows us things about our micro- and macro-cosmos that we couldn’t see if we only looked with the language of everyday experience.
And it is the dense grammar of science that pushes along our theories, our generalisations, our explanations.
But Munroe’s Thing Explainer puts all of us who need to explain complex phenomena to kids, beginning scientists, or the wider public on notice.
Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe is published by Hachette Australia.