Up goer five, or how to write in simple words

I came across a review for Randall Munroe’s book called Thing Explainer, thought it sounded good, bought it, and yes, it’s fun, instructive and hilarious! In it, he explains complicated things in simple words, or in his description: ‘things are explained in the style of Up Goer Five, using only drawings and a vocabulary of the 1,000 (or “ten hundred”) most common words. Explore computer buildings (datacenters), the flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates), the things you use to steer a plane (airliner cockpit controls), and the little bags of water you’re made of (cells).’

Now, you might wonder which words belong to the thousand most common ones – you can try it out, by typing words into the  xkcd simplewriter. It will tell you whether your words belong to the ‘simple’ or ‘less simple’ type. Theo Sanderson also has an up-goer five text editor, which checks whether your words are within the thousand most frequent; his choice of those thousand is somewhat different from Munroe’s. What’s cool about Theo’s version is that it allows you to save your text with a permalink if you manage to use only the simple words; and he has an up-goer six version, which does not simply decide whether your word is ‘allowed’ or not, but it colours in the words according to their frequency. Cool Stuff Theo!

After playing around with this, I inevitably stumbled across the up-goer five challenge: describe complex stuff (e.g. the science that you do) in simple words. Challenge accepted! Since I have been working on two rather disparate projects, I did two.

Here we go, project one in simple words:

When you move around, you not only find out more about the world, but also change what you can see, hear, and feel. In other words, you yourself change what you can learn about the world by moving. I am interested in how you can know whether some change was caused by you, or whether something in the world actually changed. Say, how does your brain know whether you are jumping or whether the world is shaking? Because this is a hard question in humans, I look at how 'simple' animals - in my case, the young ones of those animals we think of as green and jumping around - can know this, especially for the sense with which you feel that pull that stops you from flying.

Uffh! I am glad that ‘brain’ made into the simpler words, even if ‘science’ did not! And I did not use balance, tadpole, frog, gravity, or sensory system. Hard!

And project two, also only using simple words:

How do animals go about their lives? I am trying to answer a number of questions that are a bit like this one, but smaller - I can't study all animals. Instead, I study the young ones of those animals that we think of as green and jumping around. These young ones are a bit like the ones that always live in water, as they also move about in water. I wonder why they often go along the wall, rather than move about in the open. Also, I try to figure out how exactly they move - how much do they move their heads, how fast can they get from one place to another? So I study how they move with two approaches: one is about how exactly they move, and how it changes as they grow; the other is more about why they move the way they do.

So tell me in simple words, what is it you do?


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