My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you like the tv show Mythbusters and snarky and / or silly humor, you’ll love Randall Munroe’s What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Munroe gained internet fame (still not the same as real fame) drawing the popular webcomic xkcd. The book’s subtitle says it all. Munroe solicited questions from his web-legion (not the same as a real legion) of fans, selected a collection that he found intriguing, and answers them with a mix of science and humor. Munroe’s bona fides to answer questions of a technical nature include a degree in physics from Christopher Newport University and a brief career as a roboticist for NASA—though he’s fond of pointing out that he’s just a web-cartoonist whenever his answers might be wrong.
Each chapter presents a detailed answer to one of the absurd hypothetical questions. Most of the chapters are just a few pages long and feature the same variety of stick-figure cartoon that grace the xkcd website. He covers 60-ish questions in the book. Scattered throughout the book are sections called “Weird (and Worrying) Questions” which usually don’t receive answers but merely cartoons that mock the demented mind that came up with said question. (If that seems harsh, keep in mind that many of the questions he does answer are pretty warped (e.g. setting off a nuke in a hurricane or whether steady rising would result in death by freezing or suffocation).)
Like the Mythbusters, Munroe does an excellent job of selecting questions that have unexpected answers. For example, the author addresses the question of what would happen if one went swimming in a spent fuel pool (nuclear fuel rods are stored underwater for a long time after they come out of the reactor before they can go to dry storage.) The answer: Nothing if one swam near the surface, but if you swam down and touched the casks, you’d die in minutes. Munroe also takes liberty to find the more interesting unintended consequences embedded in some of the questions. For example, he dismissively answers the old question about whether every human on the planet standing as close together as possible and jumping so as to land simultaneously would have any effect on the planet. Instead, he takes on the questions of the logistics of getting everyone to one place, how much space humanity would take up, and how / whether people could get out of this state of shoulder-to-shoulder proximity alive.
Some of the questions are impossible to answer with certainty but Munroe takes them on when he can offer reasonable, scientifically-based speculation. For example, what will the area that is currently New York City look like in a million years? His answer is more or less: Who cares? Humans will be long gone and veins of plastic in past landfills will be the only evidence that we ever existed. Another such question is how much power can Yoda achieve through application of the Force?
Besides the many physics question (e.g. What’s the fastest speed at which one can hit a speed bump and live?), there are others that involve mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Mathematics questions include calculations of the likelihood that one would find his or her soulmate if each person really only had one soul mate. (My Indian friends might be pleased to know that we’d all be screwed if that were the case.) There are actually many questions that hinge on mathematical calculations.
One of my favorite chapters is in the domain of chemistry, and it answers what would happen if one tried to make a wall by collecting together blocks of all of the elements in the periodic table in the relative position in which they exist on the table? Answer: Nothing good. There are a few biologically centered questions as well. Munroe takes on the question of how much computing power human brains collectively have—and the more interesting unasked question of how human “computing” is different from that of machines.
I’d highly recommend this book for science lovers. In fact, even people who don’t care for science may find this book palatable because of its humor and the fascinating questions it addresses.