Review: What If? Answers All Your (Literally) Burning Questions

What If Cover

Randall Munroe, creator of the web comic xkcd, takes on the internet’s strangest questions in his latest book, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

If you’ve never followed the web comic xkcd by Randall Munroe, you’re missing out an internet staple. For years, the black-and-white stick figure comics have been plastered on dorm walls, pinned to cubicles, and probably geocached somewhere. Billed as “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language,” Monroe has tackled topics ranging from mapping the internet, illustrating the heights of the observable universe (on a log scale, of course), graphing the rise of the number of LEGO minifigs in the world to poignant commentary on life, love, grief, and loss.

A former NASA roboticist, Munroe often uses mathematics and science in his comic, and began answering some of the strange questions submitted by readers in his part comic, part essay blog What If? beginning in 2012. In the two years since launching the blog, Munroe has collected the best of his responses in his new book, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. In addition to old favorites, What If? includes nineteen never-before-seen essays and selected gems from the unanswered (or unanswerable) backlog of reader questions. Whether you want to know how many Yodas we’d need to power the Earth, or are just wondering how high you could float up before you’d die, What If? has the answers.

Munroe’s approach to answering the unusual questions submitted by his readers is more than the “back of the envelope” calculations mathematicians or engineers might turn to in order get a handle on a problem, making simplifying assumptions and jotting the answers down on a scrap of paper or sticky note. He takes each absurd question to its logical, researched conclusion, calling in experts like organic chemist Derek Lowe and delving into Cold War era scientific publications. The essays would be more accurately called “back of the library” estimates for all the research Munroe puts into them. That alone makes the book a solid and fun exploration of science, but the big humor hits are all delivered when Munroe takes an absurd question through to its mathematically estimated, absurd conclusion, often at the prompting of a stick figure’s curious question, “What if we tried more power?”

Take, for example, the question of the hair dryer. Reader Dry Paratroopa asked, “What would happen if a hair dryer with continuous power was turned on and put in an airtight 1x1x1 meter box?” You can read this essay in full on the What If? blog, but in short, all the power drawn by the hair dryer has to go somewhere, and so the box begins to heat up, eventually reaching an equilibrium with the air outside the box at about a temperature of 60 degrees C (140 degrees F). That answers the question, but Munroe is far from finished with this experiment. He assumes the hair dryer is indestructible, and cranks up the power delivered to it first by a factor of ten, then one hundred, and on until little but destruction remains in its path. A surprising number of Munroe’s answers end in calamity, in fact.

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Munroe is known for his cheeky alt-text – the caption that appears when you hover over an xkcd comic or one of the images on the What If blog. Many fans speculated about how this crucial, and usually hilarious, component of Randall’s essays would translate to paper. Some of the best have been included as tiny captions on the page, but many (like those in the “Drain the Oceans” chapter) have been omitted. Their lack is hardly felt, however, because even the previously published essays have gotten some careful editing to keep them punchy, fast, and fun to read. One gain of the paper translation of the blog is footnotes, appearing in Munroe’s joyful and informative style in both new and old essays.

The nineteen new essays in What If take on shooting arrows in zero gravity, putting a submarine in orbit, collecting all the elements of the periodic table, and heating up your tea by stirring it. Particularly fascinating is the chapter that asks, “Which US state is actually flown over the most?” Depending on how you define “flown over”, the answer varies, but even more impressive are the sources of all these flights. Munroe breaks down not just which states have the most planes passing overhead each year, but why, and how the placement of airports, FAA regulations, and vacation destination influence which state gets to claim fame as the most flown over. For completeness, Munroe also answers which state is the most flown-under – that is, which state has the most flights passing over it on the opposite side of the Earth? I’ll give you a hint: most of the continental US is directly opposite the Indian Ocean.

Another outstanding new chapter explains the difficulties you might face in trying to have a child by self-fertilization. Stem cells can develop into any cell in the body, so theoretically any person could take on the role of both parents by having one of their stem cells made into whichever sex cell they’re lacking, sperm or egg. The child of this self-fertilization would likely suffer from genetic disorders caused by inbreeding. The genetics behind the why and how of this are complicated, and Munroe presents the answers through one of the most elegant analogies for chromosomes, inheritance, and recessive genes I have ever seen: Dungeons & Dragons character statistics. It deviates as necessary from the tabletop RPG rulebooks, but stands as one of the most excellent examples I have seen of using a simple, well-known system to explain a more obscure, complicated one.

Most of Munroe’s calculations are made in SI units, the International System of Units that uses meters, kilograms, and kelvins, among other standard units. He often provides the imperial equivalents, bouncing back and forth in the same chapter, particularly when putting huge numbers into manageable, imaginable chucks. Depending on the units you’re used to seeing, the shift may be a bit disconcerting, and may even remind you of tricky university exam questions that intentionally mixed unit systems to catch students unawares. The first print run also seems to have run into some trouble with a few unusual symbols, with the occasional mathematical equation presented with a square box where a delta should be.

What If is Munroe’s second book, preceded by a curated collection of the xkcd web comic. What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is available now in the US, Canada, and the UK. Many international editions have been announced for later this year. Munroe is currently on tour with the book, appearing in a few cities throughout September and on a live Google+ Hangout on Friday, September 12 at 6:30 pm Eastern.

Recommendation: Whether you’ve been reading xkcd for years or you just need a gift for the curious science lover in your life, What If delivers a great read, solid math, and SI units (mostly). The book is peppered with bits of internet humor, science fiction references, and even in-jokes back to previous xkcd strips.

Bottom Line: If you love what Munroe is doing on the What If blog, this book won’t disappoint.



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