Oh my God, I can’t believe it, I did!! I’m sure you’ll know him already, but humour me for a few seconds. Randall Munroe is the author of the webcomic XKCD, a cartoon famous for having very simplistic drawings and very witty—and usually science-related—jokes. He is also the author of What If?, a book where he gives very serious answers to very ridiculous questions; and Thing Explainer, a book where he explains complicated scientific stuff using only the 1,000 most common English words.
I have been a big fan of XKCD for almost a decade, so meeting him was a life-long dream! But let me start from the beginning…
Randall Munroe doesn’t often come to the UK, and had, in fact, never been to Oxford before. It was a shock (of the positive kind) when he announced he would be having a talk at the Oxford University’s Examination Schools on the 25th of September; I immediately knew I must be there no matter what.
The first thing that shocked me when he went on stage was his appearance. I had never seen any pictures of him, and given his art style, I almost expected a doodle to appear. Nothing of the sort, though. Here’s a picture of the man himself:
He started by telling us about how surprisingly likely it is for people with degrees in Physics, like himself, to become cartoonist. In fact, according to his own studies, he is only the 7th most popular cartoonist with a Physics degree born on the 17th of October! Even though he worked in robotics for NASA, he eventually found his vocation in making cartoons about science.
One of the funniest anecdotes he told us was about how he drew a comic about turning an apartment into a plastic ball pit. This inspired a fan of his to do the same in real life, which in turn inspired him to replicate the feat. The science involved in the process is very complicated, and there is, to no one’s surprise, very little data on the matter. As it turns out, lying on plastic balls is a very comfortable experience, since they will hold you in any position you want. The only downside is that anything standing on top of a plastic ball pit is bound to sink very, very slowly. If you take a nap while in it, you could wake up surrounded by balls all around and seeing nothing but lots of colour—an experience, I imagine, not very dissimilar to taking hallucinogenics.
He told us then how What If? came about. It turns out that some fans had started sending him weird hypothetical questions that they could ask no one else, since no one else would take them seriously. Randall then did some really serious researching and calculations, and presented a very scientific answer to their queries. The overall result was so ridiculous and funny that he ended up collecting a number of these and writing What If?, a book that I would recommend to you all because of how funny it is.
The Thing Explainer, on the other hand, came as a result of the need to explain complex scientific phenomena without the strain of all the jargon. Randall felt that all the complicated jargon surrounding scientific debates usually serve one of two functions: a) being very precise when accuracy is highly needed, and b) trying to show up how much you know about science. Since showing up is not quite so useful for educational purposes, he decided to explain things by only using the 1,000 most common words in the English language.
All in all, it was a lovely experience, and I only regret that I was not able to stay to talk to him personally. I have to thank my lovely friend Aleida for queueing in order to get my book signed. Thank you Aleida, you’re a star! ♥
If you don’t know XKCD yet, I would very much recommend to have a look! And if you do know about him, I hope you enjoyed this insight into the author’s mind—I certainly did love to meet him! 🙂