What If?

June 15, 2016
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions Book Cover What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Randall Munroe
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
September 2nd, 2014

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 now has 600,000 to a million page hits daily. Every now and then, Munroe would get emails asking him to arbitrate a science debate. 'My friend and I were arguing about what would happen if a bullet got struck by lightning, and we agreed that you should resolve it . . . ' He liked these questions so much that he started up What If

If your cells suddenly lost the power to divide, how long would you survive?

How dangerous is it, really, to be in a swimming 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?

When (if ever) did the sun go down on the British empire? 

How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?

What would happen if the moon went away?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, studded with memorable cartoons and infographics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. Far more than a book for geeks, WHAT IF: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions explains the laws of science in operation in a way that every intelligent reader will enjoy and feel much the smarter for having read.

(via Goodreads)



What If Periodic TableBefore beginning this book, I was already quite familiar with Randall Munroe’s work. With his 2006 degree in Physics, Munroe worked briefly as an independent contractor with NASA on robotics. However, he had constantly been sketching stick figure “comics” most of his life. In 2005, he started posting these drawings on his website. Once the contract with NASA ran out, Munroe just continued full time on his website, reaching up to 70 million hits a month by October 2007. These comics are unique not just because they are so simple, but also because they a smart. xkcd comics are topical and frequently feature science and mathematics jokes. Nerds of the world were drawn in like magnets.

What If? is a spin-off project from xkcd. Viewers started to write questions to Munroe. These questions, also related to math or science, are typically absurd. Originally, these questions were answered by his own encyclopedic knowledge, but soon these expanded to become incredibly detailed answers with sources, and, obviously, their own small comics.

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers To Absurd Hypothetical Questions was published in 2014. It opens thusly:

Do not try this at home. The author of this book is an Internet cartoonist, not a health or safety expert. He likes it when things catch fire or explode, which means he does not have your best interests in mind. The publisher and the author disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects resulting, directly or indirectly, from information contained in this book.

Once you read that disclaimer, you know you’re in for a good ride.

What If Baseball 2

The book is more or less a Q&A, or essay collection answering questions. He takes his time and extrapolates possible answers for incredible questions. Upon hearing most of these questions I thought to myself, “Who comes up with this stuff?”

There are also intervals of Weird (and Worrying) Questions From the What If? Inbox– mostly questions which, if answered, could be used to harm people in a significant way. It was funny to hear these, but I totally understand why Munroe didn’t answer them. For example, “What is the probability that if I am stabbed by a knife in the torso that I won’t hit anything vital and I’ll live?”

Right. Followed by a stick figure which says, “Asking for a friend… former friend, I mean.”

Slightly terrifying.

As to be expected, all the questions come with accompanying cartoons. After all, Munroe came up with this on the xkcd website, where he draws cartoons. However, I listened to the audiobook version of this book (narrated by Wil Wheaton– it was awesome). That said, only once did I find myself thinking, “An image would surely help with this.” This occurred to me for the question, What If Drain the Oceans“How quickly would the oceans drain if a circular portal 10 meters in radius leading into space was created at the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean? How would the Earth change as the water is being drained?” To answer this question, I heard a lot of description of physical changes the Earth would experience. A map would have been awesome. (Good thing that exists! Check out how the Netherlands just OWNED it.)

In the end, I looked at some of the images after, and I found them to make me laugh, but having them did not detract from my enjoyment of the book. I appreciated the depth Munroe took with his science, and how seriously he answered the most absurd questions. I definitely felt like I learned a lot from this book, and I’d love to own it some day (in a hardcopy format) to keep around and have conversations with my guests about. I did learn that Wil Wheaton often read the lines of the comics, which didn’t feel out of place at all. I still got a lot of the jokes, even without the images.

What I enjoyed the most about this book was that Randall Munroe did a good job answering these questions. He always started by providing a simple answer.

Q: What if I took a swim in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool? Would  I need to dive to actually experience a fatal amount of radiation? How long could I stay safely at the surface?

A: Assuming you’re a reasonably good swimmer, you could probably survive treading water from 10 to 40 hours. At that point, you would black out from fatigue and drown. This is also true for a pool without nuclear fuel in the bottom.

What If Awkward WalkingAnd yet, he never left it there. You continue to learn about doses of radiation, how water works as radiation shielding and cooling, and how radiation in our daily lives affects us. This is true of all the What If? questions– we always delve deeper. We hit absurd, and Munroe keeps going. In fact, that’s one the best parts. You think, “Oh, surely this can’t go any further.” It reminds me of the child who keeps asking “Why?”

A great book to be read in a single sitting, or to read one question at a time as a coffee table book. I strongly encourage all science/math nerds to read this– or, well, to at least read the webcomic.

For those of you who have read this, did you have a favorite question?

4 stars

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