Fun with "Thing Explainer"

"Purity" by  xkcd

"Purity" by xkcd

Randall Munroe is releasing a new book. Even if you don’t know who Randall Munroe is, you may be familiar with xkcd, his ongoing webcomic. If you’re not, you should probably stop reading this, and go check it out right now.

This is not Mr. Munro’s first book. Last year, he published “What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions” based on another web series that he created. That book is a wonderful deep dive into seeing how a formally trained physical scientist/engineer (prior to webcomics, Mr. Munro worked for NASA) analyzes problems, regardless of how realistic/serious those problems might be. It’s a great read, at least if you are of a mind similar to my own.

Mr. Munro’s new book is called “Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words”, and it grows out of an xkcd comic, where he endeavored to diagram an Apollo-mission equipped Saturn 5 rocket and restricted his labels to using only the top 1000 most common words in the English language. The resulting image (entitled “Up-Goer 5”) is a special kind of awesome, one that his new book promises to bring to other complex systems. I’m certainly looking forward to it.

But that’s all just background for what I really want to talk about here, which is this website. Click the link and go to a simple webpage that takes any text that is input and checks it against the same list of the top 1000 words of the English language that are being used for “Thing Explainer”. Any violations will result in the typical red underline that we are all used to in the age of spell- checking. Aside from being fun, I’m of the belief that this tool can also serve as a great review tool for students. Here’s how I envision it working:

  1. The teacher explains what the site is, and how it works.
  2. A list of foundational concepts from the area of study is generated.
  3. Students use the editor to describe concepts from the list.

That’s it. Simple, clean, and useful. For years, I’ve encouraged my students to review by seeing if they can pass the “reasonably intelligent 12-year-old” test: Could they explain the material they are reviewing to a reasonably intelligent 12-year-old child? Thing Explainer takes that concept to an extreme. The structure could be easily broadened/turned into a game/etc. Why not have students develop explanations without titles, and have other students guess what the concept is? Or have the class vote on the best explanations for each concept. There are no real limitations.

Of course , I couldn’t help but try my hand at a few explanations of my own. Here’s natural selection:

In living things, there is a force that causes them to change over time.  This is because they make more living things every year than there is food and water and other things to keep them all living.  Some living things are better at living than other living things.  These living things will make more new living things than the living things that are not as good at living.  The new living things will be better at living than the old living things that were not as good at living.  As long as this force continues to work, living things will get better at living.

And here is my attempt at covalent bonding:

The almost smallest things that matter is made of can do interesting things with even smaller parts of themselves. One of the things that they can do is to share the even smaller parts between themselves. They do this when they want to be better than they are when they keep the even smaller parts to themselves. Most of the matter that is made out of the almost smallest things that matter is made of are made by the almost smaller things sharing the even smaller parts of themselves in this way.

What are you waiting for? You know you want to try it. Go ahead, and make sure you share the results with us when you finish.

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