Randall Munroe’s book reads like a conversation with an extraordinarily mature and brilliant, toddler. This book may be reminiscent of the never ending conversations kids have with every response being “But, why?” with the addition of ludicrous suggestions and high level science and math.
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. from Goodreads.
If you have ever had a conversation with a two to five year old their favorite question to ask is, “Why?” When you provide an answer their response is again, “Why?” This can continue until you try to change the subject or your brain melts, depending on your perseverance level and patience. This book is written as though Randall Munroe sat around asking himself, “but what else is there?” type of question while he went seventeen rabbit holes deeper than the average person would even fathom going. For the most part, I found this absolutely delightful. The times I did not were because I either absolutely didn’t care about the jumping off point or its a subject I avoid – I just cannot discuss the end of the world due to climate change right now, thanks so much. I skipped 3-4 questions based on this and found that, in doing so, I managed all the way to the end with only the smallest of brain melt.
What struck me the most about this off-beat little book is how enormous our world really is. Not just large but apparently full of math and science that is a mystery to me. I started reading this book as an audiobook (fantastic Wil Wheaton) but I found that I couldn’t follow the information well enough. Sadly, reading it didn’t automatically mean that I comprehended everything – but it does come with some really cute drawings! Randall Munroe, creator of XKCD, is both exceptionally well versed in physics and math and also very comfortable reaching out into niche communities for answers. This is the kind of intelligence I admire the most: one that recognizes its limits and asks for help.
The general tone of this book is certainly best described as “tongue in cheek.” My hands down favorite answer was to the question of creating a Periodic Wall of Elements. There, the author describes the horrors that would await anyone trying to combine all of the elements on the periodic table including, “Do not build the seventh row,” and “There is no material safety data sheet for astatine. If there were it would just be the word “NO” scrawled over and over in charred blood.” Certainly the disclaimer provides the best indication of the general mood of the book,
“Do not try any of 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.”What If? by Randall Munroe
I will, however, admit that the first two questions bored me so badly that I very nearly put this wonderful book into the DNF pile. I do not want to discuss the end of the world due to natural causes like global windstorms. Credit the outgoing administration’s denial of science for my fears about our world (and the very real things to be worried about re: the environment) but I just don’t have the emotional energy to play with this issue right now. The second question was about baseball. America’s COVID rate is alarming but you would think the quarter of a million people dying from this virus was nothing compared to the fact that sports might be cancelled. Between the fear of the world ending and the Herculean efforts to keep sports alive, these two questions were like a one-two punch to my senses. Thankfully, the third question was so ridiculous (Can I swim in a spent nuclear fuel pool?) that I kept reading. Rest assured, this book will probably have one or two questions you don’t care about but there is something in here for everyone.
This is one of those books that would be perfect to give as a holiday gift, especially to those engineering friends that I find so difficult to shop for every year. Or, for people, like me, that just like to geek out about the weird and wonderful planet we live on.
Tell me, please! What is the wierdest nonfiction book you read this year?