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Complicated stuff in simple words from Randall Munroe

In a world filled with jargon, it’s refreshing to hear from a subject-matter expert who can communicate in a direct and uncomplicated fashion – so that even a layperson would understand.

You could say this is Randall Munroe’s mission. Munroe is masterful at using math, science and comics to make a point. His website, xkcd, showcases stick figure comics with themes in computer science, technology, mathematics, science, philosophy, language, pop culture and romance.

And in his latest book, Thing Explainer, he uses the 1,000 (or, rather, ten hundred) most common words in the English language to explain concepts like how smartphones work, the periodic table and nuclear reactors. As the book’s subtitle suggests, it's about complicated stuff in simple words.

In fact, in the middle of writing this blog post, I ordered a copy on Amazon for my kids. They are preschoolers who always ask questions that I think I should know the answer to, but don’t. This book might be my go-to for the next 10 or 15 years!

Bill Gates calls it “a brilliant concept” because “if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it.” Houghton Mifflin recently announced that a selection of his drawings and explanations will be included in new editions of its high school-level chemistry, biology and physics textbooks.

Munroe is a former NASA roboticist who, on a typical day, puzzles over absurd hypothetical questions about science, many of which come in from fans of his blog What If? For example, he spent several days trying to answer this question: “If all digital data in the world were stored on punch cards, how big would Google's data warehouse be?” If you’ve ever watched his TED talk, you know how that one ended.

How does he get to an answer?

Much like a statistician or data analyst, he uses what he knows to model for things that he doesn’t know. “I love calculating these kinds of things, and it's not that I love doing the math,” Munroe says in his TED talk. “I do a lot of math, but I don't really like math for its own sake. What I love is that it lets you take some things that you know, and just by moving symbols around on a piece of paper, find out something that you didn't know that's very surprising. And I have a lot of stupid questions, and I love that math gives the power to answer them sometimes.”

Munroe will join us as the closing keynote speaker for Discovery Summit, Sept. 19-23 at SAS. You won’t want to miss it!

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