Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
by Randal Munroe
genre: non-fiction, humor
Synopsis from Goodreads
Randall Munroe left NASA in 2005 to start up his hugely popular site XKCD ‘a web comic of romance, sarcasm, math and language’ which offers a witty take on the world of science and geeks. It’s had over a billion page hits to date. A year ago Munroe set up a new section – What If – where he tackles a series of impossible questions: If your cells suddenly lost the power to divide, how long would you survive? How dangerous is it, really, in a pool in a thunderstorm? If we hooked turbines to people exercising in gyms, how much power could we produce? What if everyone only had one soulmate? From what height would you need to drop a steak to ensure it was cooked by the time it reached the ground? What would happen if the moon went away? This book gathers together the best entries along with lots of new gems. From The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek and the songs of Tim Minchin, through chemistry, geography and physics, Munroe leaves no stone unturned in his quest for knowledge. And his answers are witty and memorable and studded with hilarious cartoons and infographics. Far more than a book for geeks, WHAT IF explains the laws of science in operation in a way that every intelligent reader will enjoy and feel the smarter for having read.
What If? drew me in from the first question, “What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?” Munore starts the book off with, “Nearly everyone would die. Then things would get interesting.” Talk about a good hook!
From there, things did get interesting, both with that answer and the rest of the book. Munroe combined math with pop culture in many of the answers. A question about a bullet with the density of a neutron star led to a discussion about whether the vacuum would be great enough for River Tam to be right about you bleeding to death in just under 9 seconds, or if you’d actually bleed to death faster.
If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the little prince?
Aside from the cartoon of Legolas throwing arrows instead of shooting them, I think my favorite moment in the book was when Munroe explained how he quantified the lower limit for Force energy Yoda used in the original Star Wars trilogy. He estimated the weight of Luke’s ship, timed how quickly the ship rose from the swamp, and factored in the gravity of the planet after underestimating the fandom and not expecting to find it. The math in some of the other answers was more impressive, but that showed some interesting creativity.
Read the Footnotes
Often, I overlook footnotes. I’m not that interested in citations unless I’m reading something for academic purposed. In What If? you’re going to miss some laughs if you don’t. After stating that comparing the computing power of humans and computers is like comparing apples and oranges and that apples are better, there’s a footnote that reads, “Except Red Delicious apples, whose misleading name is a travesty.”
Weird and Worrying Questions
Munroe doesn’t answer all of the questions submitted, but he does post a response to all of the questions in the book. For some of them, it’s obvious why he wouldn’t want to answer.
Not wanting to write a how-to for potential arsonists, Munroe responds with a cartoon figure calling the police. Another was so horrifying, it supposedly gave Munroe nightmares. He also admits that he does not know why horned lizards shoot jets of blood from their eyes because it results in him staring at the sentence until he needs to lie down. Good to know I’m not the only one horribly grossed out by that prospect.
Q. Would it be possible to get your teeth to such a cold temperature that they would shatter upon drinking a hot cup of coffee?
Me: I can never look at coffee the same way again.
Things I Learned
- If I dial a random number on my call phone, there’s a 1 in 1,000,000,000 chance that the person I called just murdered someone.
- While typing this blog post, I caused a Magnitude -6 earthquake. Yes. I’m that powerful. Yes. There is a negative scale for “earthquakes.”
- Yoda’s Force energy is worth a minimum $2/hr.
- The U.S. government has published a paper on why detonating a nuclear bomb in the middle of a hurricane is a bad idea.
- How many giraffes high a person can throw a baseball.
- You cool tea faster by repeatedly dipping the spoon as opposed to stirring.
Ermisenda said it best in her review of Daughter of Smoke and Bone.
Needless to say, 5 out of 5 stars.
So You Liked What If?
The book was just published a month ago, so chances are you haven’t read it yet. If you have, here are some other books you might enjoy. Click the images to preview the books on Amazon.
If you liked What If? for the comics, you might like Dilbert.
If you liked What If? for the nerdy humor, you might like Ready Player One.
If you liked What If? for the science, you might like The Psychopath Test.
If you liked What If? and you trust Amazon to suggest books, you like like Coreline.