Behind The Tech with Kevin Scott - Randall Munroe: XKCD Cartoonist, Author, & Physicist

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RANDALL MUNROE: Then fell into doing comics where I can spend all day diving into some rabbit hole, and then draw comics about it. And then the next day, move on to a different thing. I found a way to grab all the candy in the candy store.

KEVIN SCOTT: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m your host, Kevin Scott, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft.

In this podcast, we’re going to get behind the tech. We’ll talk with some of the people who have made our modern tech world possible and understand what motivated them to create what they did. So, join me to maybe learn a little bit about the history of computing and get a few behind-the-scenes insights into what’s happening today. Stick around.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Hello, and welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m Christina Warren, Senior Developer Advocate at GitHub.

KEVIN SCOTT: And I’m Kevin Scott.

CHRISTINA WARREN: And today, we have a super exciting guest with us, Randall Munroe. He’s famous for creating the webcomic xkcd

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it’s – Randall is maybe my favorite cartoonist. So I very rarely post cartoons onto social media; 100% of them are Randall’s stuff.


KEVIN SCOTT: And so, once a month, once every other month, like he’ll write something that I just think is so fabulously funny that I have to share it with my other nerd friends.

CHRISTINA WARREN: No, I mean, well – well that – well, that’s what makes the comic so good is – and – and you know, I’m interested to hear what you two talk about. But it’s such a – it covers such a wide spectrum of – of nerd-adjacent topics. And – and because the comic’s been going on so long, they’re literally – it’s like The Simpsons There literally is one for everything. You know, like there’s – there’s an xkcd that you can apply to any situation.

KEVIN SCOTT: Absolutely. And – and the thing that I’m always surprised by when I share one of his comics, usually the things that I find funny are like the most arcane.


KEVIN SCOTT: And you’ll share them, and then you’ll find that there’s this huge audience of people who find the same arcane thing –


KEVIN SCOTT: – amusing, which is so awesome.

CHRISTINA WARREN: No, no, it really is. I mean, and I think this gets to the matter of why he’s such a good comic and a good writer is that he’s able to capture these things that we think are unique to us that only – only we really, you know, care about these – these small particular things and find it funny, but it’s more broad than you would think, and the internet makes that possible.

He’s also a great writer. I actually interviewed him, this is funny, like when the first What-If book came out about eight years ago. So –

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s so awesome.

CHRISTINA WARREN: – you know, so he does great stuff.

So let’s go ahead and let’s just dive into your conversation with Randall.

KEVIN SCOTT: Randall Munroe started his career in physics working with robots at NASA’s Langley Research Center. He’s well known, however, for engineering a creation of a different sort, the iconic webcomic xkcd. He describes his work as a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language.

Randall, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m a huge, huge fan of your work.

RANDALL MUNROE: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, and there’s so much stuff I want to ask you about. But like maybe we will start the same way that I start with most of our guests, which is talking a little bit about how you got interested in science and technology as a kid, or whenever that spark got lit.

RANDALL MUNROE: I don’t know. It’s hard to – it’s – I feel like it covers such a broad area of stuff. Like I felt like as a kid, I was just interested in all kinds of different things, you know, why the creek in our backyard flowed the direction it did, and like, what atoms were made of, and cool Square One’s TV show Mathnet for kids was a big influence.

You know, and then – and then as I got older, it’s sort of like, oh, a lot of these things fit together under the umbrella of science or math. And that sort of gave me more – more direction. But – but I still felt like I was sort of jumping from exciting thing to exciting thing, and I didn’t think of them as really fitting into one coherent whole.

KEVIN SCOTT: And – and did your parents do anything special to encourage that curiosity that you had when you were young?

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, I mean, my – both my parents, I don’t know, I get a lot of my personality and general inclination from them, I’m sure. And they – I know my dad had some engineering; he did some engineering work. And so, he was sort of – like, I remember one time, me and my brother arguing – you know, trying to figure out who could run faster. And my dad was like, “Well, you know, you can figure out how fast you run by measuring.” And like, he measured a section of the road, and had us run from one to the other with a stopwatch and be like, “Oh, now you can find out how fast you’re running,” you know. And it wasn’t like a really athletic thing. It was more like, oh, this is a thing you can measure. That’s cool.


RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah and my mom was always very interested in maps and kind of patterns and logistics, and I feel like I got a lot of that from her.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s super cool. And did you – you know, when you were a kid, either in, you know, grade school, middle school, high school, did you take a bunch of science classes? Did you – did you start making things early?

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah. You know, I went through some phases where I remember doing a couple of biology classes in a row, and feeling, you know, sometime in middle school, and feeling like, you know, I thought I liked science, but then, I don’t know, I – it’s a common thing. Like, I remember the day we were like, cutting up animals, you know, dissection. And I was like, I don’t really like this, I don’t want to do this, you know.

And – and – and there were – and then – and then, you know, I had some chemistry classes, and I just was like, I’m having a hard time with this and it’s not that exciting. You know, maybe – maybe what I really want to do is language and, you know, math.

And then – and then I hit – I remember a year when I asked some question, and the teacher was like, “Oh, I think the answer to that is in this physics book.” And I was like, oh, okay, and I started flipping through. And I’m like, oh, this is all the science I really like. Physics, that’s what – that’s what I want to do. And – and so, that got me, sort of pulled me back from language back towards science.

And then as the years have gone by, I’ve really warmed up to biology, especially is very cool. I still don’t really want to cut up animals, but that’s fine. There’s a lot of other cool biology out there.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it is interesting, like how we all gravitate to different things. I mean, I think that the thing you said earlier, that science and technology is such a broad umbrella, there’s so much in it.

Like I – I think I was a lot like you. I didn’t really enjoy chemistry and biology, you know, sort of the lab science sorts of things, all that much.

But like I have a 14-year-old daughter now who’s just absolutely obsessed with biology and medicine. And like, so when she got to dissect a heart, it’s like, “Oh my god, this is the most amazing thing ever. Well, like when can I dissect another one?”

And so, I – you know, I just – I mean, one of the things I appreciate about what you do is you sort of present this picture of science as this very broad thing. So you know, hopefully lots of people can find something about the way that you’re portraying it that they can latch on to and find interesting.

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, I think – I think it’s maybe less a matter of, you know, science is one of the things you can learn about, and more that, like, you can be curious about things and science is a tool for helping you to understand the things you’re curious about, you know, And so, in that way, it’s less of like a thing to be interested in and more a way to be interested in other things.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, that – that is beautifully put.

So did you know by the time you graduated high school that you wanted to study physics in college and be a physicist as your profession?

RANDALL MUNROE: I think I was still wandering back and forth between areas between like – I mean, I felt like sort of like a lot of high school students and like, I don’t really know what I want to do, what I want to – uh-uh, I just don’t want to do the assignments I’m assigned right now, let alone like, take on more of them in.

But um, no, I did – I did first robotics, which was a lot of fun. That was my first kind of hands on, like that kind of team, competitive, engineering-oriented activity. And that got me sort of into engineering.

And so, I think when I was looking at – at colleges, I was looking at either engineering or physics, and ended up I went to Christopher Newport University in southeastern Virginia and got a degree in physics there.

But even then, I was sort of – I think I was pretty solidly settled in on the physics track by the time I was at least in my first or second year, but I still didn’t feel like I really like knew exactly where I wanted to narrow things down to. So I took a lot of, you know, computer science classes, math classes, some other stuff.

And then, when I graduated, and I was looking at grad school, I remember one of my – my advisor was talking to me and – and saying, you know, okay, yeah, you know, you – you seem to enjoy physics, you’re doing – doing okay, at it, your grades are fine. I mean, they were – they were nice about it; my grades were okay.

And so, the – but – but they were sort of like, if you’re going to go into grad school, you really need to sort of zero in a little bit more on something specific. And – and I just didn’t feel like there was any particular area of physics that grabbed me. You know, like, I liked the general language of it, I liked applying it to things, but it wasn’t like I really wanted to get into, you know, particle physics or dynamic system modeling, or – or materials, or – or anything, you know, or cosmology. You know, there are all these different areas, and it was like, okay, you gotta pick something and kind of drill down into that, and that’s what you’re going to be doing in grad school for a few years is like, you know, really getting up to speed on this one area.

And – and I said, you know, I just don’t – I don’t know. Maybe I just need to, like, you know, spend some more time learning, exploring, because I feel like I haven’t found an area like that. But I really like doing this stuff.

And – and I remember my advisor, at one point said, “Well, listen, you can’t have all the candy in the candy store. You can’t just keep on jumping from one thing to another and learning a little about it, and then moving on.”

And – and I was like, “Okay, I guess – I guess I’ll just figure it.” And so, I didn’t go to grad school for the first year or so. I mean, and I said, “Well, I’ll think about it after a year,” but then fell into doing comics where I can spend all day diving into some rabbit hole and then draw comics about it. And – and then the next day move on to a different thing. And so, I sort of found a way to grab all the candy in the candy store.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and – and it’s – it’s really interesting. I mean, we’ll – we’ll get into the xkcd in – in a minute and your whole process, but like, one of the things that I find super impressive is like you’re diving deep enough into a bunch of things where the humor is sometimes like deep inside baseball.

Like I remember, one you did recently was you were riffing on, like, how you could distinguish mindset of scientists, or like types of scientists by the – like, the – the Greek symbology that they – that they use, which is hilarious. Like just, I mean, like, maybe – maybe only to –


KEVIN SCOTT: – a scientist. But – but you know, how – how do you – how do you approach these deep dives into so many different things? Because a lot of these things are fairly disconnected from one another. Like, you’ve got a basic set of principles, but the literature is different, like they use – you know, they write math in a different way. It’s almost like a different language on top of a – you know, a common language. So how do you deal with that?

RANDALL MUNROE: Well, I mean, I spend – I spend a lot of time reading a lot of different science stuff and trying to understand things. And often, I’m just, you know, trying to understand something for my own curiosity. It’s not like I’m trying to educate myself in this. But like, in the process of trying to answer some question, I’ll discover I’ve – I’ve read a whole bunch of this. And like, oh, this is where they store these papers, and this is how they present this kind of data, and this is what this weird chart means.

But the interesting thing about – about writing about this stuff is, it’s almost helpful to not know as much about a field, because it’s really hard to notice the things that are weird about it, when you’ve been really suffused in it.

And so, like – like, there’s a lot of – a lot of the time when I encounter something for the first time, that’s when it’s sort of easiest to point out, “Oh, you know, it is kind of weird that they all do this,” and like, the people who are working in the field will notice, “Oh, yeah, it is weird that we write that that way, isn’t it?” But like, they’ve gotten used to it, so to them it’s the normal way of doing things.

And – and like, every field has its own quirks that you just kind of get used to, but it’s sometimes easier as an outsider to – to – to notice them and – and kind of make fun of them, or like a lot of the time, when I come in, I’ll be confused by something. And if you’re in – if you’re working in science, and in academics, and in a lot of areas of life, there’s – there’s a lot of pressure to sound like you know what you’re talking about, and to not sound clueless, to, you know, when – when something comes up that you don’t understand, you’re like, ah, okay, and then there’s this thing, but I’m not going to go into it. You know, you’re – you’re thinking like, hopefully, they don’t ask me questions about that part. I don’t understand that part, you know, but I can if we need to. And there’s a lot of like, sort of the insecure, like wanting to seem like an expert in something.

And that impulse, I think, can be counterproductive in a lot of ways, but it’s also counterproductive if you’re trying to – to communicate about the science or – or write about – or – or, you know, make jokes about the science, because a lot of the time that’s – that’s what’s funny is like, the – the stuff that everyone sort of understands, but is secretly a little confused by.


RANDALL MUNROE: And so, I find sometimes embracing that and being like, okay, I’m just going to admit, I’ve never understood what, you know, Laplace space is or something, you know, like, both it’s like an opening to other people being like, “Oh, yeah, you know, I was confused about that for a long time, and then I finally figured it out. Here’s the – you know, here’s the trick.”

And it’s also a great chance to – to, like, you know, observe, this is how I feel about this. And – and that can – that can be like a good topic for – for a joke, or just any kind of like, meta – meta stuff. Like the stuff that you’re confused by is like, the – the salient stuff.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. Well, you know, I sort of feel like you’ve set yourself a much harder task than, say, a science writer, like someone who’s going to write popular science books, or like write science columns, you know, for the front half of Science or Nature. Because you have to be right enough, and – and the insights that you have, have to be keen enough where the joke works. Because like, the ultimate thing is like whether someone is surprised or has an “aha” or laughs at something that you do, and there’s no BS’ing that, right? It – like the – the laugh either comes or it doesn’t.

And so, you know, I sort of feel like you have to have this like, pretty deep understanding that you – you may not have to have when you can, you know, throw a bunch of fuzzy language on top of a description of something that you don’t really understand.

RANDALL MUNROE: I don’t know. I – I think I have a lot of respect for the people who write the – those – those columns. Oftentimes, they’re – they’re, you know, really serious scientists who are –


RANDALL MUNROE: – who are really trying to figure out – sort of, I feel like people who write about science get it from both directions. They get criticized by the experts for being like, “You’re making our stuff to – you know, you’re – you’re dumbing it down, you’re making it hard, you’re missing these important points.” But then, like, if you wrote it the way the scientists, that like satisfied the scientists, like no normal human would understand it. And like – and so, the normal humans are like, this is confusing. Why are you, you know, making me like follow this, like using these words, but I don’t know what these words mean. This is really frustrating to read. You know, it makes me feel like, I don’t understand anything. And you don’t want to make the – the readers feel like that, but then like, you also are going to get yelled at by the scientists. So I don’t know, I think that balancing that is about as hard as anything in – in – in, you know, writing or science – or science.

But I don’t know, sometimes being able to make jokes about things is a little bit of an out, you know. It’s – because – because I can make a joke about not understanding a Fourier transform, and that’s actually easier than – than understanding the Fourier transform.

And so, you know, it’s like, when I understand something, when I’ve figured something out, I can draw on that. But then, like, I can stop at the point where I don’t understand things anymore.

And – and people will often kind of assume, oh, you made a joke about this area of this field; you must understand the whole field. And I’m like, no, I just – just that part. That’s what I wrote the joke about.

So you know, I think – I think people are – give – will give a lot of credit to – to, you know, if you make a reference to something, to assuming, oh, he must know all this stuff.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, but – but there is just sort of an honesty to the joke, right? Like there – you know, it’s either funny, or it isn’t.

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s definitely true. And that’s – it’s kind of a nice subjective anchor that like, if – it’s like with – with any kind of science writing, it’s hard to tell if you’re – the people you’re talking to her understanding you. And this is like true in any area of anything. Like, when you’re talking to people, you don’t know if you’re really getting across what you think you’re getting across.

And like anyone who’s lectured in – in an academic context knows, you know, how do you tell if the students are paying attention? Like, how do you tell if they’re completely lost or not? Like when I would be completely lost in class, I would be like, I’m just going to continue taking notes and pretending I know what’s going on and hoping I pick it up soon.

And so, joke – writing jokes is nice, because you – you can tell if people laugh or not, you know? And if – and if they aren’t laughing, you’re not like, well, it’s okay; they understand the joke. You know, you –


RANDALL MUNROE: If people aren’t laughing, if people don’t laugh, it means your joke needs work.

But I – I don’t know, I do think – I think that’s, again, something that it’s almost easier, like with science writing you can – you know, if you’re writing an article about something as a journalist, you know, you – you – you really have to know, is my audience going to understand this or not? Because you aren’t going to get the same feedback.

KEVIN SCOTT: Well, and I do agree with the thing that you said a minute ago, like I do, I have a deep respect for science writers. Like I just recently wrote an essay for the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on AI, and the audience is like everybody who reads the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which is like a pretty broad range of academic-minded folks, like not all of whom are even scientists.

And the article was about AI. And so, I felt very self-conscious the whole time I’m writing the essay about this line that you described, like, am I going to, you know, get scolded by my AI colleagues for taking liberties with details? And am I doing enough of the liberty taking to get people to actually be interested in what I’m writing, so they’ll read the whole thing and maybe have a little bit better understanding of the topic I’m writing about? So I do think it is, I have a deep admiration for people who do that well. Like it feels very hard whenever I tried to do it.

RANDALL MUNROE: It is. And – and one thing I feel like you got to – that – that comes up in this is, I’ve really seen, noticed there’s like a gender component to how people respond to science writing. Like, I’ll write about something that I barely understand, or you know, like, I’ll – I’ll come across some topic and be like, oh, this is a funny little tidbit in this area of math; I’m going to make a joke about it, you know, or I’m going to mention something about it. And people will like automatically assume, oh, he must know this whole area; you know, he must know everything about this.

And I think that women who I know who do science writing do not get the same presumption of expertise. Like I get introduced as like Dr. Munroe a surprisingly – like a surprising amount of – with surprising frequency.

And – and I don’t really worry about titles that much, but it does grate a little bit when the number of friends I have who are women with PhDs who don’t get introduced that way. And so, I always try to like, be – be clear about that.

But yeah, it’s frustrating when you’re trying to explain something to the public and walk that line. And like, I’ll get people assuming I don’t know something, you know, to some extent, but a lot of the time I get grace, you know, given kind of leeway in the other direction.

Whereas, if – if you’re a woman writing about science stuff, and you, you know, simplify something or refer to something, you’ll get people being like, “Actually did you know, this is a simplification? Really, there’s this more complicated thing. I can send you some books on it,” or whatever? And it’s like, that’s something that it’s a lot easier being a man writing about this stuff, and that’s really frustrating.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it’s super frustrating.

RANDALL MUNROE: So it’s like, it’s nice that people assume that I know all this stuff, but I sort of wish they would assume other science writers knew it, too. So I have it easier in that way.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, that’s a great viewpoint.

And – and, you know, I think there are other interesting biases, as well. There’s like a famousness bias. Like, because you’re well known, like people are going to make assumptions. There’s, you know, if you talk a particular way, people will assume you like are more or less well-educated or better informed. I mean, it’s really dealing with all these biases. And I think you’re right, like women – women certainly suffer from this far worse than many, many, many other cohorts.

RANDALL MUNROE: Well, and it’s like, just sort of that specific tradeoff of like, you know, that – that’s the central tradeoff of like talking about or writing about science is like, you know, simplifying things, but making things, you know, clear and easy to understand, while not losing nuance. And it’s like, you’re – you’re – you’re balancing that thing, and it’s just for some people, it’s a lot easier to do that balance than others, because they have more to work – more, you know, presumption of expertise to work with.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, you know, it’s sort of interesting. I mean, related to this is I was chatting – chatting with Neal Stephenson about this and like he – yeah, so – so Neal Stephenson is like famous science fiction author. I know you know who Neil is, but just sort of saying it for the – saying it for the audience.

And – and you know, Neal also gets this sort of presumption of, because he’s wrote so many books and like, been such an accurate forecaster of some future trends in these books, like he gets a huge benefit of the doubt.

And we were talking about this thing, which is, like, there – there are people who sort of make appeals to authority, and there are people who, you know, make appeals to rationality. And so, like, you know, peer reviewed, it’s not perfect, but the peer review process for scientific discovery, like you have to sort of have faith in the process, like not faith in the authority of the people submitting papers. This is why we have blind reviews in some – some journals and conference proceedings, and like, you’re just trying to figure out like how you can, like, really get to the truth.

And then there are these other places where, you know, we try to appeal to authority, where you sort of have some established reputation of the person and then like, you trust what the person is saying because of their authority, not because of the rigor of the process by which they produce an idea.

And I do wonder, we were talking about this in the – in the case of the web, right, where you just have this, you know, with the web and social media, you have a way for anybody to say anything that they want, and it gets very confusing sometimes. You know, authority versus rationality, you know, get mashed up in all sorts of I won’t say bad ways, like because I mean, like I sort of – I have a bias, right? Like, I’m a scientist by training. But it’s certainly different than it was 20 years ago,

I wonder if you get any of this or, you know, this is part of your process with X – xkcd. Like you’re trying to, you know, shine a light on truth, right. And I guess there’s a way that you could do your comic where it was more about the joke than about the – the – the integrity of the science writing that you were doing. But part of what makes xkcd work so well, for me at least is that it’s great because the integrity of the science writing is there, and it’s funny.

RANDALL MUNROE: Well, thank you. No, yeah, I mean, the web let’s – the statement that the web lets people say an awful lot of stuff and it can get confusing, I think is maybe an understatement of the century.

Yeah, I think that it’s – it’s sort of, you can get bogged down in – in these kinds of theoretical frameworks about, like, you know, the right way to search for truth, in ways where I feel like a lot of – like, a lot of science works through things that if you think about them in theory, like seemed like they shouldn’t work at all. And yet, like in practice, they end up producing good science.

Like, you know, the – the – like, the ease with which you can fake data, or, you know, fool yourself and get something published, if you’re respectable, you know, you – how easy it is, like, it – like the incentives, you know, career-wise, and – and economic in some cases, not – not as much as scientists would like, but you know, the – like, it seems like in – in – like, scientists are human. They should be susceptible to all the same – you know, all the same – the same problems. And yet, for the most part, like science seems to work in a way that I think is really that it’s a bunch of people who are sort of behaving in good faith and working together. And that, I think, is like a key piece of it.

So I don’t know that it’s necessarily the difference between authority, like trusting an authority blindly and like going and checking things yourself. Like, if I’m – if I’m like, looking up, you know, some – some number or – or some measurement, like, I’ll just go to a paper that has been out for a little bit, has been cited, they measured it. I’m going to trust they measured it right. You know, I’m – I’m – especially if it’s, you know, this is – okay, this is someone vaguely respected, this is serious work. And like, that can be wrong, sometimes, but most of the time, it won’t be wrong. Most of the time, that’s like, you can rely on that. And it’s because, like, of a human process happening there, you know, not just the peer review itself, but like, the general trust between a bunch of people working together.

I think the maybe the – the key thing that – that is behind a lot of this is not so much like bias or lack of bias, or like, you know, who you look to as an authority versus whether you trust your own experiments over what, you know, the authorities are saying, is more just curiosity that – that you can’t – you can’t do good science if you don’t have a question that you’re earnestly trying to answer. And if you’re earnestly trying to answer it in good faith, then these tools, you know, of collaboration and of scientific experiment will help you get to it.

And if enough people are not trying to answer questions in good faith and not trying to, like understand things better, then yeah, the whole thing falls apart. But I think that that is because if people aren’t – if people are not trying to answer questions and – and learn in good faith, then you – no amount of bolting scientific philosophies onto that is – is going to help.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. I super strongly agree with that. I think the other thing, too that you just mentioned, this notion that science is collaborative, is really an important thing. Like, one of my theories about why science ultimately, or like scientific ideas, like have to – good ones have to work is because often, you’re composing them together. And so, if someone publishes something that’s faulty, and then someone else picks that idea up, and uses it in a thing that they in good faith are trying to go solve, they very quickly may discover that everything sort of breaks because the thing they’re relying on was broken.

And so, you just sort of ten – like there’s – there’s sort of peer review beyond the peer review that got things published. So like, there’s just this, if it’s good science, like people are going to want to use it, and so, like the scrutiny continues.

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah. I think a lot of the – a lot of the places that we seem to run into trouble is – are where there’s a thing that we all want to solve, and then there’s a piece of science that like someone does something where it’s like, oh, if this is true, then it’s really helpful, and we can all do more with it.

And like, so then people grab onto it, and they’re like, “Oh, great, this helps me solve a problem I have here,” you know, and – and – and – and there isn’t necessarily, you know, the incentive to like, you don’t – you don’t go back and double check, hey, was that right or not?

And it’s less like – it’s less like, you know, a question of deceit and those people doing bad science. Maybe they were doing perfectly good science or – or – or –or maybe, you know, they assigned it to a grad student who faked some data. But whichever it is, like, people are curious about another problem. Your science helps them, you know, gives them a piece of their solution that they’re trying to build. And then – and then it isn’t until years later that someone goes back, and is like, “Oh, no, this is wrong,” you know.

And – and that’s where I think – that’s where I think it’s the most helpful to have people who are doing stuff like, you know, these replication projects, or – or just people who are kind of curious and – and – and saying, like, okay, all of this relies on this assumption. What – maybe we can get a different solution if we change this, you know. What if – what if – has anyone checked if this data is right?

It’s not a process of like, trying to examine who has made a mistake and grill them and find the liars. You know, it’s like, maybe we’re missing something here. Let’s go back and look at this, you know.

Like the – the example I’m thinking of right now is the recent papers on the amyloid hypothesis and Alzheimer’s.


RANDALL MUNROE: Where it’s – it’s, you know, someone – someone fakes some data to make their, you know, research look publishable and exciting. But like, it wasn’t – the people who were then using that, it wasn’t that they were, you know, ideologically driven, or had blinders on, you know, or weren’t checking their work enough. It was like, they all were trying to figure out how to treat Alzheimer’s, and they couldn’t find a solution. And this was like, okay, here’s a promising avenue. Like, let’s try applying this to a bunch of things, you know. And – and it was already, you know, the – the story behind that work is interesting. Like, it was already work that existed because people were so – were struggling to validate this hypothesis.

But, you know, it’s not – it’s not like the – the incentives there were more like, people thought they had promising leads, and they weren’t, you know – like, no one wants to – no one wants to have the whole basis of what they’re working on be wrong. But then, like, people did eventually go – like, the – the – the hypothesis, the amyloid hypothesis is – is – really has been taking a lot of hits. It was – you know, the theories based on this didn’t work. You know, the – the medicines that we’ve developed didn’t work.

And, you know, if you talk to people in like the pharmaceutical field, like they say, like, yeah, this is we’ve got a mess here. We’ve been working on this hypothesis for, you know, all this time and it’s – it’s not getting us anywhere. We don’t know what to do. You know, like, it’s not like they’re – they’re trying to cover that up. It’s just everyone’s trying to find an answer. Everyone wants to cure Alzheimer’s.

And so – so there is a place where I think that sort of mechanical like, you know, there isn’t an incentive to think, well, what if I’m not onto anything, after all? But if you can find an alternate hypothesis, then that’s a reason to like, go poke holes in the first one, you know. I think that’s – that’s – it’s kind of I think it’s like a – it’s a messy, collaborative process that isn’t – isn’t so much about spotting deceit as like trying to recognize whether you’re really getting closer to an answer or not with what you’re doing.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and I think it does – in some cases, it’s hard when the experiments are very expensive and when the – the experiment durations are very long.


KEVIN SCOTT: And like there’s a bunch of stuff in particle physics that are sort of that way where, I mean, like, we’re – we’re trying to figure out whether or not we can make a net energy producing tokamak now. And you know, Europe’s going to spend tens of billions of dollars building the Nth tokamak in the world, hoping that they can get a – you know, something that net produces energy. And it would be so valuable, you know, if we can. And like tokamaks, like the physics look like it ought to work if you can just solve all of these engineering challenges.

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, there’s because a lot of interesting – yeah.

Yeah, it’s – that’s – that’s a that’s a fun one. I’ve seen some – some strongly differing opinions on whether those – on how – how solvable those engineering problems are. I really – I’m really – I’m as interested as anyone to see what they – what they manage. But yeah, definitely not cheap.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, super not – not cheap.

Well, so let’s – let’s go back a minute to, so you’re – you’re on this physics path, and then you sort of discover comics, which, you know, seems like a non-linearity for like physicists. They – they’re – they’re – I don’t think there are that – that many examples of physicists who – who decide that they want to start making a webcomic. Did you doodle a lot when you were a kid?

RANDALL MUNROE: You know, you might – you might be surprised about that. There’s – I – at one point, I had a list of, of people with physics degrees, who took a right turn and went into cartooning. There’s more of them than you think. In fact –

KEVIN SCOTT: Interesting.

RANDALL MUNROE: – out of all of the people who got a physics degree, but then went on to a cartooning career, and were born on October 17, I am the second most successful.

KEVIN SCOTT: Who’s – who’s the most successful?

RANDALL MUNROE: Mike Judge who did Beavis and Butthead. No.


RANDALL MUNROE: Yep. Degree in physics? There’s – there’s a bunch of us, I know. You know, and maybe there are chemists, too. But there’s Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. I drew up reading – I grew up reading Foxtrot by Bill Amend, who also has a degree in physics from Amherst.

But yeah, I always read comics growing up, like Calvin and Hobbes, the Far Side. I read every Garfield strip published up until I, you know, was in my teens.

But I figured, oh well, cartooning seems cool. You can sit at home in your pajamas all day and draw, I guess. That sounds like a nice job. But I figured, I guess you have to know how to draw, and also know how to write jokes. So I guess I don’t know how to do either of those. So maybe that’s not the career for me.

And I don’t know, you can agree, or people can have their own opinions about whether I learned to write jokes, but not being able to draw turned out not to be quite the barrier I thought it was. But –

KEVIN SCOTT: I think your drawings are pretty good.

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, no, I appreciate that. It’s – but what I – when I started off, I wasn’t thinking of it as comics, you know. So I would draw all the time. I did a lot of doodling in my notebooks, a lot of sketching things.

And then you do a surprising amount of drawing in a physics degree. I feel like one – one hot take I have about physics is every – everyone who’s getting a physics degree and who’s going to teach should have to take a class where they learn to draw a cube in 3D, and, like, draw, like a few shapes in perspective on the board, because I just have so many memories of a professor drawing like, okay, and then you have this, you know, the particle here, and it’s moving through a plane here. And then you have a perpendicular line here. And they draw it, and it immediately turns into this mess of like a Picasso-like thing. So I took – I took a technical drawing class at one point, and that was – that was – actually turned out to be really helpful for what I did.

But, you know, so I would be drawing in my notebooks. I would draw fractals, doodle stuff. And then I – but I wasn’t thinking of that as like comics that people would read. And then – and then at some point, I started scanning them, and I was like, oh, these notebooks are falling apart. I have a website I’m not using. I’m going to just post some of these online. I’ll like draw a little box around these drawings. And – and – and some of them, you know, had a person saying something or some text. And then people like, started sharing them around, and I was like, oh, if people want these, I can keep drawing them, you know, and – and then sort of fell into cartooning that way.

KEVIN SCOTT: And so, what did the progression look like? So you – were you working at NASA while you were – when you began xkcd and, you know, sort of doing this on the side while you were, you know, doing imaging systems?

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, I was working – well, so I – while I was in – after my third year of college, I did an internship and a neat program that they had at the local NASA Langley Research Center down in southeastern Virginia, in the Newport News, Virginia Beach area. And I – while I was working there, I got to know some people and – and that was around when I – after that summer, I think is when I started posting my comics online.

And then that fall, I was pretty much finished with my classes, but I wasn’t going to graduate till the spring. And so, I – because I had come in with some – like, I took a bunch of AP tests. And – and – because it turned I out was free – this is – this is a tip for college that may or may not apply is when you’re going in, if they have tests you can take to get credit, and there’s no cost to taking the test, take the tests. You might – you might randomly do better than you expect. I got a bunch of credits that I was not expecting. So I was graduating early, or, you know, I was finished – I had finished all my stuff and I just had my final project left for my last semester.

And someone who I had worked with at that internship got in touch and was like, you know, we were talking about some – some – something we had talked about, and then he mentioned, oh, you know, I’ve got a spot in my lab, if you want to – if you’re interested in working on this project that we were working on. And I said, sure.

So I started working there before I graduated, and then I was there for most of 2006. But then later in 2006, you know, I was working – I was working then on – on robotics and robotic vision and stuff.

And then later in 2006, people started asking me if they could order stuff off of my – my website. You know, oh, can I get your comics on a t-shirt or a poster? And I was like, oh, sure, I could start selling those. And then before I knew it, I was spending more time making stuff from my website than – than working on robots.

And then around that time, the contract I was working on ran out. You know, I was doing these contracts that got re-upped. And then – and they were like, all right, do you want to – do you want us to find you another contract or what? And I was like, you know what, I’m – I’ll get back to you on that. But I’m going to try doing this – doing this comic thing fulltime for a little bit.

KEVIN SCOTT: Did that feel like a big risk to you?

RANDALL MUNROE: You know, it – it sort of didn’t. Because it – it all fit together so well. You know, like, it felt like if I was less, you know, confident, or if I was doing – if it was less able to support myself with – with the comics, I could have kept doing, you know, doing NASA stuff until I hit that point. So I think I – I sort of lucked out in that way.

And I was a little bit worried about telling other people. It’s like, does this seem irresponsible? It seems like, you know, I’m – it seems – this seems like a good move. But it does seem a little bit weird. And, you know, I remember wondering if my parents would be like, “No, what are you doing walking away from NASA?” But they really just seemed delighted, as long as I wasn’t going to move back home.

But yeah, I think it was – it felt like well, now I’ve I now know these people at NASA. You know, I could – I worked on this one project, but like, I could come back to them if I wanted, and be like, hey, what else are you working on? I promise not to draw cartoons the whole time, this time.

And you know, and I was drawing cartoons, and I was getting messages from people who worked at, you know, in – in cool, like tech things that – that I might also want to work in. So I was thinking like, just from a kind of career point of view, this is probably not the worst thing to be doing.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. Well, and so, one of the things I love about your website is you don’t run ads on – on the comics. So you – and I want to talk about your – your books shortly because I think they’re just absolutely fabulous. I’ve – I’m waiting for my – you know, pre-ordered my copy of What If 2.

RANDALL MUNROE: Cool, thank you.

KEVIN SCOTT: Which I’m very, very eagerly looking forward to getting.

But so – yeah, that’s awesome.

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah. I appreciate it, appreciate the plug.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, no, no, I – like everybody should go out – so – so they should go out and buy your first What If book and they should preorder the second one like right now. I mean, look, we can go ahead and talk about it.

So these books are – they are, you know, sort of long-form extension of what xkcd is, it feels like to me. So like they are trying to describe in a – in an approachable way like interesting questions or like describing interesting phenomena about the world.

Yeah, and some of them are whimsical, you know, like, what would happen if everybody on the planet Earth, you know, jumped simultaneously. But even when they’re whimsical, like the, you know, you walk people through the process of how you would analyze that phenomenon, which is useful.

And so, like, I think, you know, sort of sucking people into the process of math and science through whimsy, I think is just genius. Like, my kids love these books.

So I mean, talk a little bit about like, why you decided to write – write the books in the first place?

RANDALL MUNROE: Well, when I started drawing comics about this science stuff, I really wasn’t expecting it, but people started sending me questions now and then. They’d be like, me and my friend have been arguing over this, you know, Superman physics question, or, you know, this – this thing about the skyscraper or something. And – and they were like, but it seems like it’s like, too pointless a question to bother a real scientist with. So – which is sort of a – feels like a little bit of a burn, but at the same time, I mean, they were – they’re like, you seem like you probably have a lot of, you know, free time, or like, you’re enthusiastic about, like, doing a completely pointless, but incredibly hard task, because it sounds funny or cool. And I was like, sort of insulted, but also, they were – they were definitely right. I was. So I would get these e-mails.

Now like, the kinds of questions that would really hook me were the ones where it seemed like there must be an answer, but I don’t immediately know what it is. And I have a guess about what it is.

And so, I would find that someone would send a like one-line e-mail with a question in it, and I would like, spend six hours like, going down rabbit holes of research being like, oh, it must be this, right? And then I look it up. No, I don’t think it’s that, Oh, man. Well, okay, we could solve it this way, you know, and I would, like, get sucked into that. And I would finally get to the solution, and I’d write them up this whole e-mail and reply, you know, of like, okay, I’ve worked it out, I’ve done this, here’s the citation, here’s the thing, and then send it and then like, the e-mail would bounce or something. And I would be like, oh, okay, you know, they –

And then – and so, at some point, I started thinking, like, if I’m going to put all this work into this, I – other people would probably want to read these, too. And so – so I started, you know, sort of soliciting questions and – and writing up my answers.

But it really is – it’s, you know, it’s nice – it’s a way of showing people that you can use the tools of science to, you know, how to answer questions with them. But it’s really more about, to me, it’s like, you can take a question that is really interesting, and – and showing, like, a way of getting to the answer. It’s not like a way of sneakily giving you science; it’s a way of like, sneakily giving you the answer itself. You know, and like, it’s not that the answer is important, but that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be. It’s like telling you, you can figure this stuff out. You know, there are ways to figure this stuff out. You don’t have to feel like – like, people don’t like asking questions sometimes because they worry that it – it makes them look like they don’t know what they’re – you know, they don’t know something.

And so, I try to encourage that, you know, like, in myself, I have a hard time, like, when someone uses a word, and I don’t know what it means. I had a New Year’s resolution a while back, that was like, I’m going to start asking people what words mean, and it was really hard. Like, it was – I was not expecting that, like, how difficult that is, but then also, they’re happy to tell you. You can just ask. It’s fine, you know?


RANDALL MUNROE: And so – so I try to, like, show – encourage people.

KEVIN SCOTT: And – and they don’t think you’re stupid when they – when they respond, right?


KEVIN SCOTT: Like they do not think less of you.

RANDALL MUNROE: No, yeah, and like – like, and then the next time someone uses the word, you don’t have to feel like you don’t know it, because you’ve learned it, you know?

And so, with, like, these tools, you know, of – of science and calculation stuff, like, they’ll give you an answer. They don’t care if the question is, like, pointless or not, or if, like, why you want to know. You know, it’s just – just like, if you’re curious about something, you can ask. There’s probably an answer out there. If there is, you know, here are ways we can try to find – find it. And it’s okay to not know stuff and be curious about it, you know?

KEVIN SCOTT: It’s – it’s – it’s such an awesome thing. Like, I do think that curiosity is almost like a muscle. Like, the more – the more I let myself be curious about things, like the more curious I become, and like I think that’s a – it’s a – it’s a good thing, like asking lots and lots and lots of questions –

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, I think –

KEVIN SCOTT: – you know, maybe even is more important than being able to answer lots and lots of lots of questions.

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, I think – I think that it’s like – like, sometimes people say like, how do you encourage people to be curious or encourage them to be interested in, you know, science or interested in any of this stuff?

And like, I don’t – I don’t know. I’m not – I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know, like. I really feel though, like – like people are curious. Like, it’s a question of like, do they feel like they have a way to get, you know, to satisfy that curiosity? Or do they feel like the things they’re curious about are just like, oh, well, that’s something I could never understand, or that’s unknowable, or that’s like, you know –

Like, this is something that I really – I really admire Carl Sagan, who had a really good – I think a lot – a lot of time, the people who would – who would write about science or talk about science were kind of, like, smug or condescending about, like, people are just, you know, incurious, or they’re, you know, they believe in superstition, or they’re not scientific or not rational knowledge.

And like, I think that that – that stuff kind of rubs me the wrong way. Like, and I think one thing that Carl Sagan really appreciated is that, like, people are just all looking for answers. And like, if you – if you don’t offer them answers, you know, if – if you can offer them answers through science, then they will be interested in science. Like, if you can offer them like, answers, like, here’s a way of figuring out the answers to your questions, they’ll – they’ll jump at that. And if you don’t, they’ll find someone else who has answers, you know, someone else who’s offering a way to think about the world that – that satisfies their curiosity, or – or gives them, you know, a sense of understanding and power.

And like, but it’s – it’s the same impulse. It’s the same, you know, I want to understand what’s going on here. I want to – I want to figure out how it all works. I want to answer these questions I have. And I think that’s a pretty universal thing. And it’s – it’s a question of like, where you go to get those answers and how you go about – how you go about it.

KEVIN SCOTT: One – one of the things that I – that I really love about some of these old Richard Feynman interviews is like, people would ask him questions, and he would just light up and say, “That’s an interesting question.” And they – you know, his – the questioner would look a little bit confused, like, “Oh, well, you know, why is that an interesting question for Richard Feynman,” and then he would explain to you why the question was interesting. And like, he was just totally into, you know, the complexity of, you know, a question that might have even seemed to the questioner, banal. It’s – so it was – I know, like, he had a – he had an interesting philosophy of question asking.

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, and it’s – it’s sort of, you can always kind of ask why. Like, you know, the – the two-year-old strategy of like, well, here’s the answer. Well, why is that the answer? Well, I guess because of this. Well, why that?

I think it was Clifford Stoll, the – the writer and –and computer person from – who – who did – said that in his oral exam for an astronomy PhD, a physics PhD, you know, with a focus on astronomy, the examiner just asked the question, “Why is the sky blue?” And – and – and he answers, “Oh, God, that’s a – wait, I was prepared for all these specific – Rayleigh scattering.” And then the examiner was like, “Can you explain in more detail,” and then – and it’s like, “Ah, okay, yeah, it’s because of this interaction with the electrons, you know, as the photons move past the atoms.” “Can you explain in more detail?” And like two hours later, they’ve run through like half of modern physics just trying to answer these questions.

And I – and I like how really simple questions, you can kind of keep drilling into them and – and find more unanswered questions. Although one of my favorite things in – in the questions I answered in What If 2, I love when you run into a simple question, where we don’t really know the answer.

One of my favorite examples of that is, until very recently, we did not really understand why ice was slippery, and why ice skates worked. I feel like we’ve sort of finally nailed that one down. We’ve got a rough understanding of like, what happens on the surface of ice that makes metal skates slide on them – on it. But you know, the common explanation you would hear sometimes about like, oh, well the pressure of the skate causes the ice’s melting point to drop and makes a thin layer of water form, turns out like not to be true at all. And the actual mechanism is like a weird, complicated materials thing.

KEVIN SCOTT: Interesting.

RANDALL MUNROE: And – and there, you know –

KEVIN SCOTT: And you explain that in the book?

RANDALL MUNROE: I actually talked about that some in – in How To. In What If there’s – in What If 2, there – there are some fun questions like the – so there’s a –if you’ve ever tried taking a pair of pliers and crushing a sugar cube in the dark, there’s a flash of light. This – it – when I heard that, I was like, that can’t be true. And I like went and got a sugar cube and like pliers. And you have to let your eyes adjust to the dark first. And I like crushed the sugar, and I’m like, there’s not going to be a flash of light, and I crushed and there was a flash of light. Like, it was the weirdest thing. I was like, oh, this is – and it’s called tribo – triboluminescence is the – the term for it.

But – and so, someone asked like, how it looks like there’s a little spark. So how much sugar would I have to crush to create a lightning bolt, like with the power and brightness of a bolt of lightning.

And that – and so, there – there isn’t really a spark, although the process that creates triboluminescence is – which is not totally understood, does involve like separating electric charges, and then having them equalize in the material, which is sort of like a bolt of lightning.

But it turns out, it’s like, if you want to ask like, where does the energy come from, why does that happen, how do those charges get separated, why do they, when the – when crystals of sugar fracture, why do you get light like that? You very quickly run into questions that like chemists who work on it are like, well, there are a couple of ways of looking at this, and we’re not really sure what the right one is.

But then, as a weird, you can at least say like, well it works because it’s charged separation happens near the fracture plane. And then that equalizes, and it causes an emission of light through this mechanism as the electrons move. And so, you can say it’s sort of similar to how lightning works in that sense.

But lightning is another one where, you know, going a little bit out on a limb here, we don’t really understand why lightning happens. You know, we understand very well that there is a charge buildup in one part of the storm, because of something to do with the updraft carrying ice, as it – and as it bounces past the air, you know, moving – you have the ice falling and the air moving up and – and it’s like a Van Der Graaff generator, and electrons, you know, move from one to the other and build up at one part of the storm, and – and there’s a deficit at the other end. So you have a difference in charge that eventually equalizes with the lightning bolt.

But like, why the charge flows in the direction it does, when you rub a balloon on your hair, or, you know, wind past rain in a thunderstorm, we don’t know. There’s no general theory for why electrons move in the direction they do. It’s just weird materials stuff.

And so, like, we don’t understand why lightning happens either, you know, and – and we don’t understand it. And it’s like a very, kind of basic way. Like, we don’t know why charges build up in one part of a storm. And – and I think that’s really cool. Like, and it’s really interesting and important, you know, and – and it does tie into the same problem as like, why crystals flash when you crush them in the dark, and why your hair stands up when you rub a balloon on it. And like these are – these are interesting, hard physics problems and they’re problems that are trying to answer a question that a little kid could ask. And I think that’s really cool.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s super cool.

So we’re – we’re just about out of time. And so, I wanted to ask one last question that I ask everyone. So you – you seemingly have a super-interesting day job where you get to go indulge your curiosity and then entertain people with what you – what you find. But I’m curious what you do in your free time, like when you’re not, you know, thinking about science and – and writing comics. What do you do for fun?

RANDALL MUNROE: I don’t know. I do – I do some like, you know, stargazing, astronomy stuff, hiking, and photo – photography. I’ve got some of those telephoto lenses that you can use, the kind where you can – you have this little camera, but you can actually like take pictures of Saturn’s rings just by pointing the camera at Saturn and clicking it And so, I have a lot of fun playing with that.

So I’m – I’m subsidizing my interest in – like I feel like there’s – there’s a sweet spot halfway in between photography and astronomy, where you’ve got a camera that’s like almost a telescope, and you can take pictures of stuff that’s really high and really far away. And I have a lot of fun doing that.

KEVIN SCOTT: That’s awesome. I have a friend who does astrophotography, and that’s a deep rabbit hole.

RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, yeah, and – and – and anything where you’re trying to – to do a long, you know, deep exposure of the sky, you’ve got to build sky tracking equipment and use software that was written by someone in like 1993 and is unchanged since then. It’s a – that’s – that’s a fun, technical rabbit hole, if you’re inclined to go down those.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, super fun.

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today, and –

RANDALL MUNROE: No, thanks for having me.

KEVIN SCOTT: and Moreover, thank you for doing what you do. Like I think it’s an incredible, generous service you’re doing for the world.

RANDALL MUNROE: No, well, thank you. I mean, it’s been a lot of fun to chat about this. I appreciate the fun questions.


CHRISTINA WARREN: Okay, what a great conversation with Randall Munroe. There were so many good tidbits there. I have to start off, my mind was blown that he is the second most famous comic who was a physics major born on October 17. Like that, that blew my mind.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, mind blown.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Completely mind blown. And – and I am a Mike Judge fan and – and huge Mike Judge fan, huge fan of King of the Hill, and, you know, Silicon Valley and Beavis and Butthead and all that stuff, but I had no idea that they – like that he’s –

KEVIN SCOTT: Don’t forget Idiocracy.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Idiocracy, yes, Office Space. You know, he’s great. Idiocracy, which did predict basically. Anyway.

But the fact that like, they’re, you know, he’s not the only kind of comic physics, you know, physics major, physicist turned comic is so interesting.

But, uh, you know, wanted to kind of get your perspective. You talked a lot about this. I don’t know if he would classify himself this way. I think I would. Like, he’s – he’s, I think, a generalist who knows a lot about a lot of things.

And I think that that means that his approach of being able to write his comic and write his books, to kind of explain and go into these areas is really profound, because, as we were talking about earlier, he can create these comics strips that – these panels that, you know, apply to a large swath of people, even though we feel it’s individualized. But he can do that on just so many different topics. So interesting.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I think it’s a – it is a super interesting thing. And he talked about it earlier with his – his undergraduate advisor, like telling him, like, you got to specialize, you got to specialize.


KEVIN SCOTT: And we – we’ve talked about this on the podcast with other guests. Like there’s such a powerful gravity that exists in some of these science and technology fields to like, try to get people to specialize, and to get like very, very, very narrow. And so, I’m always just really inspired by people who are general.

And like, I think the thing that he’s specialized in is like being able to just sort of deep dive into a bunch of things.


KEVIN SCOTT: But that is a skill. It’s a specialized skill in and of itself.

CHRISTINA WARREN: It is. Not only that, but, you know, and I say this like as someone, I consider myself a generalist, so I love seeing people like him who are so successful and do such a good job.

But not only, as you said, can he do these deep, deep dives, but he can make it accessible and understandable to a large swath of audiences. Like you were talking about, you know, the – the challenge that you had, you know, writing for one of the scientific journals, because just of the array of different audience types.

You know, when I think about all the people who read Randall’s books, or his – his webcomic it’s such a vast array of things and he’s covering such a vast array of topics, that it’s – I’m so impressed by someone who has the ability to hit the points for both the newcomer and the person who’s really in it, you know?

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. Well, and you must – you must see the same sort of thing yourself like in your career as journalists, right? Like you have to be able to deep dive –


KEVIN SCOTT: – into like a bunch of different things and like understand them well enough that you can convey clearly and accurately like a complicated set of ideas.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Yeah, no, totally. I mean, and ironically, it’s also something that I do now, you know, in developer advocacy when I’m teaching people how to do something. And I think that, probably similar to Randall, like my whole thing was – was curiosity, just – just like the two of you were talking about. Like, I would want to know, answers myself or want to figure something out.

And anytime I’m going to – not – not every journalist is like this, but for me, certainly, if I was going to write about something, I needed to understand it as much as I possibly could, to be able to convey what I could, you know, to – to a general audience. And that just came from many times, like, okay, well, what’s – what’s the most fascinating story, what’s the most fascinating thing to tell is something that you’re curious about, and you want to know more about. And I think that’s what Randall has done fantastically with – with his books and – and obviously with – with xkcd.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. And he – he described it a couple of different ways. Like he said, the – the two-year-old strategy or, you know, he like talked about Clifford Stoll’s, PhD oral exam, but like this notion of not being afraid to ask why –


KEVIN SCOTT: – and not being afraid to continue to ask why –


KEVIN SCOTT: – until, you know, you sort of bottom out on something. Like, more people need to do that.

CHRISTINA WARREN: 100%. The other thing that struck me as part of that, too, is – was not being afraid, again not being afraid to ask why. But not being afraid to ask if you don’t know something, not being afraid to – to come up and say it. And it’s so difficult for us, I think, especially those of us who are more technical, and consider ourselves and maybe are seen by others as having a certain level of knowledge. It can be really difficult for us to ask and say, hey, I don’t – I don’t know what this is or – or I don’t understand this. And the fact that he had that resolution where he’s asking, wanting to say, if I don’t know what a word means, ask about it. I love that and – and I wish more people would do that.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. Well, you know, I know when I was early in my career, like when I was a kid, and like in college and grad school, I had a really tough time sometimes asking questions, just because I was so worried that it was going to make me look stupid, and then –


KEVIN SCOTT: And I don’t even know, like, you know, it’s like I’ve, you know – well, I sort of understand why I don’t mind asking questions now, like, what – what’s going to happen to me? Like, I’m – I’m this like, old, you know, privileged man, right? You know, like I can – you know, you can think I’m stupid. Like I don’t care anymore.

But like, I don’t know why –why I ever cared? Because it’s such a high cause of, you know, like, not getting your questions answered –


KEVIN SCOTT: Or – and – and I, you know, I wish, if I have one superpower, like a thing that I could give the world is like, I would just wipe away imposter syndrome.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Yes. No, and, I mean, I think that’s what it is. I think a lot of people have it. And – and, you know, as you kind of had mentioned when you were talking with him, people don’t think less of you because you ask a question. And I can even think of myself, if someone asks me, “Well, oh, I don’t understand what this means,” I don’t think less of them, you know. And – and so, but yet we have this idea that people will think less of us, and – and will have a lesser respect for us if we admit that we don’t know everything.

I’m with you. I wish that you had that superpower that we could get rid of impostor syndrome, but I’m also equally glad we have people like – like Randall out there, who are asking these questions and are doing it in such an accessible way, and in a way that, you know, when you look at like the last 18 years or whatever of – of his comic, you know, I think has probably really catalyzed a lot of people to ask more questions.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. And – and I think he – he – it really is, like when I thanked him at the end for the generosity of what he does, like I do believe that, like, what he is doing is an incredibly generous use of like his – his own curiosity and his own impulse to educate and entertain. Like, it’s just an incredibly valuable thing.

CHRISTINA WARREN: It really is. It really is.

Alright, well, that is all the time that we have for today. A huge thank you to Randall Munroe for being with us.

If you have anything that you’d like to share with us, please e-mail us at [email protected]. You can also follow Behind the Tech on your favorite podcast platform, and you can check out our full video episodes on YouTube. So thank you so much for tuning in.

KEVIN SCOTT: See you next time.