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Randall Munroe loves physics, and loves explaining stuff

With the arrival of his latest book, specialized buzz about him has become a media roar.

Among a certain varied readership often linked to the technorealm—a readership often called a cult—Randall Munroe, a whimsical physics-trained cartoonist and writer, has long had a growing following. But with the 24 November release of his new book, he's become a major media item.

The best way to get a sense of what he does may be to watch his 9-minute TED talk, which has had 2 million views. It begins with a preposterous physics anecdote—the one cited further below in this media report, about a pitch thrown to a batter at .9c—but dwells mostly on his effort to answer a preposterous computation question: "If all digital data were stored on punch cards, how big would Google's data warehouse be?" It turns out he has comic timing commensurate with his other techno-whimsical explanatory skills.

The second of two November New York Times articles about Munroe proposes a big-picture surmise about his cultural status: "His path from underground cartoonist to best-selling author reflects a broader cultural shift that has occurred as science and technology increasingly saturate our lives." His 2014 best-seller was What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. His new book is Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.

He's known in part for his website xkcd, a name he chose because it's a deliberately unpronounceable word. He calls the site a "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." The home page carries a warning: "This comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)."

A recent Wall Street Journal profile begins this way:

It's difficult enough to find the humor in science, math and technology, but Randall Munroe—the 31-year-old creator of the wildly popular Web comic "xkcd"—manages to do so ... using stick figures. Quite possibly, you've been emailed one of his "xkcd" musings, which poke fun at "Star Wars" mania and cellphone towers shaped like trees. Or perhaps you've read one of his "serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions." ... (Sample question: "What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?" The answer involves a mushroom cloud.)

Making complex ideas understandable and entertaining is Mr. Munroe's forte. For his new book ... the former NASA roboticist created 45 explanatory diagrams of everything from the Large Hadron Collider ... to the workings of a dishwasher. In a display of nerd bravura, the accompanying text is written using only the thousand most common English words.

In a recent exchange (digital, of course) from his home in Boston, Mr. Munroe revealed his fascination with mail-order radioactive ore and credited his prodigious vocabulary to [the comic strip] "Calvin and Hobbes."

In a brief recent article at Time, Munroe answers interview questions using annotated cartoons. A blogger at Scientific American called his new book "a feast for the eyes and a party for your brain."

Entertainment Weekly expressed enthusiasm too. Bill Gates praised Munroe in a blog posting:

It was fun to read Randall Munroe's new book.... Munroe sets out to explain various subjects—from how smartphones work to what the US Constitution says—without any complicated terms. Instead he draws blueprint-style diagrams and annotates them using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language.... It is a brilliant concept. If you can't explain something simply, you don't really understand it.

Munroe told the Wall Street Journal that the living scientist he most admires is exoplanet astronomer Sara Seager. "Like most people who have heard about exoplanets," he said, "I'm so impatient to get a better look at these worlds and—of course—find out if there's anything alive on any of them. I am rooting for Dr. Seager and her colleagues to open up these new worlds to us."

In November's first New York Times piece about Munroe, Times science writer Kenneth Chang tells an anecdote from Munroe's experience at MIT teaching a high school class in a special program. MIT's write-up for that course, called Solar Panels, Hand Grenades, and Blowing Up the Moon: How to Think About Energy, merits quoting:

Which has more energy—a laptop battery or a hand grenade? A pound of cookies or a pound of gasoline? A fastball or a bullet? How high could a Double-A battery lift you? How many solar panels would it take to run a toaster, or a cell phone, or a city? If a bird caught a mosquito made of antimatter outside your building, would you survive the explosion? If you blew up the Moon, what would happen to the Earth?

This class will discuss what energy is, how to tell how much of it there is, and how to figure out what it can do. We'll discuss different power sources and how to compare them, from cell phone batteries to nuclear power plants. Throughout the discussion, we will focus on getting fast answers to real-world physics questions using basic math, a piece of scratch paper, and Google Calculator.

To celebrate the Einstein centenary, on 18 November the New Yorker published Munroe's summary for lay readers, "The space doctor's big idea." It's written using only those thousand most common words—displaying that "nerd bravura." Here's the first paragraph:

There once was a doctor with cool white hair. He was well known because he came up with some important ideas. He didn't grow the cool hair until after he was done figuring that stuff out, but by the time everyone realized how good his ideas were, he had grown the hair, so that's how everyone pictures him. He was so good at coming up with ideas that we use his name to mean "someone who's good at thinking."

In his TED talk, Munroe stipulates that he doesn't love math per se, but loves it for what can be done with it. So he loves physics. The second November New York Times piece about Munroe ends this way:

With his books and comics, Mr. Munroe has built a career as a lifelong amateur who flits from one esoteric topic to the next, something he feels he never could have done had he pursued a career in physics. He still vividly remembers when a college professor told him he needed to develop a subspecialty in physics if he wanted to advance in the field. He found that prospect deeply unappealing.

"'You can't have all the candy store,' is what he said. 'You have to pick,'" Mr. Munroe said. "I was really lucky to hit on the career where I can have all the candy in the candy store."


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.


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