Philip Ellis
How To Explain The Inexplicable

“What is a hiccup?” This, says Dr Xand van Tulleken, was one of the final questions asked of him during his medical education. When asked the exact same question again, years later, by a six year old, he replied: “I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now.”

Xand is chairing an Intelligence Squared panel on ‘Making The Complicated Simple,’ with special guests Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist and creator of the comic xkcd, and Marcus de Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University.

Randall begins by telling the story of how, when he was little, he’d take his father’s pen apart and put it back together again — but he could never figure out how the clicker on the end managed to both extend and withdraw the nib. “The closest I could get is that it worked because the mechanism was designed that way,” he says. “Why was it designed that way? Because that’s what made the pen work!”

This passion for figuring out how things work sparked a career in science. And through working in academia, Randall has observed that a frequent fear people have is that they will be perceived to not look like they know what they’re talking about. This extends to the wider world, and is why so many of us feel the need to jump in and correct somebody, or use a more complex, specific term. We’re showing off. Randall even found himself doing this, referring to the Earth as an “oblate spheroid” because “sphere” simply wasn’t accurate enough.

Enter Randall’s new book, The Thing Explainer, which takes some of the most complex scientific concepts and creations, and conveys them using the thousand most commonly used words in the English language. Or more specifically, the “ten hundred” most common words; “thousand,” Randall explains, didn’t make the cut.

What follows is an fascinating and often humorous exploration of how a jet engine works, and the Mars rover, and the food chain. The book breaks down concepts which take years of study to master, and delivers them in a way that anybody can understand.

In the past, language has been used as a means to hoard knowledge rather than share it, to create monopolies supported by widespread illiteracy. These cartels have been slowly eroding since the invention of the printing press, but still exist today. Medicine, says Xand, is one such walled garden: “We wrap it up in language that is destined to confuse, we use Latin and Greek, and therefore patients will walk away after a diagnosis and immediately forget half of what they’ve been told.”

There are, of course, issues in using only the simplest words to describe and explain a subject. For one, you run the risk of being perceived as condescending, and losing the very audience you’re trying to engage. Xand notes how, when presenting science programmes on children’s television, he is much freer to use words like “hypothesis” and “mitochondria” than he would on the BBC, because unlike adults, children don’t disengage when they hear a word they don’t understand. “As long as the content is engaging,” he says, “you can sneak all kinds of advanced concepts in there.”

However, Marcus explains how using any existing language can have its limitations when it comes to brand new mathematical objects, and that there is an immense power in giving things brand new names. This applies just as easily to social phenomena as it does to mathematics; the selfie, for instance, is a relatively newly-invented term, but one which invokes instant understanding in conversation.

In his role as Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, making the complex simple is something Marcus dwells on a lot — ultimately, he believes we should all have access to science, as it impacts each and every one of our lives.

“Science plays such an important role in how we’re evolving,” he says. “Public understanding isn’t just about entertainment, or interest. We need a scientifically literate society, so we can talk about things like stem cell research, or climate change. The problem with science communications right now, Marcus believes, is that too often, phenomena are presented as a “finished story,” and so media consumers are trained to absorb a fixed idea of something which cannot be changed.

“Of course, it might be impossible to make certain things simple,” Marcus concedes. “Or at least, not without losing the essence of the thing.” Randall cites one such example, which he initially tried to include in his book; the inner workings of a clock or watch. He soon found that ultimately, without a degree in Horology, it was simply a case of knowing that each part is made to interact specifically with other parts, and that’s what makes a watch work. There is simply no other way to explain it — much like the clicking pen that intrigued and confounded him as a child.

When it comes to getting a complicated idea across, Randall’s best advice for scientists and storytellers alike is to shrug off your own ego whenever possible. It’s not about proving how smart you are, he says. This approach, in turn, can help you learn new things too: “What I do now, as soon as I see a word I don’t know, whether it’s in an academic paper or on a restaurant menu, I just ask; ‘what does this mean, please?’ You should try it. It’s incredibly freeing.”

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