Great Explanations

Ex­plain­ing is a difficult art. You can ex­plain some­thing so that your reader un­der­stands the words; [I try to] ex­plain some­thing so that the reader feels it in the mar­row of his bones.

Richard Dawkins

My pri­vate school taught biol­ogy from the in­fa­mous cre­ation­ist text­book Biol­ogy for Chris­tian Schools, so my early un­der­stand­ing of evolu­tion was a bit… con­fused. Lack­ing the cu­ri­os­ity to, say, check Al­tavista for a biol­o­gist’s ex­pla­na­tion (faith is a virtue, don’t ya know), I re­mained con­fused about evolu­tion for years.

Even­tu­ally I stum­bled across an elo­quent ex­pla­na­tion of the fact that nat­u­ral se­lec­tion fol­lows nec­es­sar­ily from her­i­ta­bil­ity, vari­a­tion, and se­lec­tion.

Click. I got it.

Ex­plain­ing is hard. Ex­plain­ers need to pierce shields of mis­in­for­ma­tion (cre­ation­ism), bridge vast in­fer­en­tial dis­tances (prob­a­bil­ity the­ory), and cause read­ers to feel the truth of for­eign con­cepts (quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment) in their bones. That isn’t easy. Those who do it well are rare and valuable.

Text­book writ­ers are of­ten skil­led at ex­plain­ing com­plex fields. That’s why I called on my fel­low Less Wrongers to name their fa­vorite text­books (if they had read at least two other text­books on those sub­jects). The Best Text­books on Every Sub­ject now gives 22 text­book recom­men­da­tions, for fields as di­verse as sci­en­tific self-help and rep­re­sen­ta­tion the­ory.

Now I want to jump down a few lev­els in gran­u­lar­ity. Let’s pool our knowl­edge to find great ex­pla­na­tions for each im­por­tant idea (in math, sci­ence, philos­o­phy, etc.), whether or not there is equal value in the rest of the book or ar­ti­cle in which each ex­pla­na­tion is found.

Great ex­pla­na­tions, in my mean­ing, have four traits:

  1. A great ex­pla­na­tion does more than re­port facts; it uses anal­ogy and rhetoric and other tools to make read­ers feel the tar­get idea in their bones.

  2. A great ex­pla­na­tion is not a sin­gle anal­ogy nor a gi­ant book. It is, roughly, be­tween 2 and 100 pages in length.

  3. A great ex­pla­na­tion is com­pre­hen­si­ble at best to a young teenager, or at least to a 75th per­centile col­lege grad­u­ate. (There may be no way to se­ri­ously ex­plain string the­ory to an av­er­age 13-year-old.)

  4. A great ex­pla­na­tion is ex­cit­ing to read.

By shar­ing great ex­pla­na­tions we can more of­ten ex­pe­rience that mag­i­cal click.

List of Great Explanations

I’ve barely be­gun to as­sem­ble the list be­low. Please com­ment with your own ad­di­tions!

(The list be­low is ex­clu­sive to writ­ten ex­pla­na­tions, but feel free to share your fa­vorite ex­pla­na­tions from other me­dia. My fa­vorite ex­pla­na­tion of BASIC pro­gram­ming is a piece of soft­ware from In­ter­play called Learn to Pro­gram BASIC, and of course many peo­ple love Khan Academy’s videos and The Teach­ing Com­pany’s au­dio courses.)


Math and Logic