What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

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 happe...

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Title:What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Author:Randall Munroe
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Edition Language:English

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions Reviews

  • Steve Alexander

    This is one of the most entertaining books I have ever read. And I have read over 10 books.

  • Philip

    One of the things that's nice about goodreads is that it lets you embed pictures. ...And one of the nice things about xkcd is that it has lots of pictures licensed under CC Attribution/Non-Commerical - meaning I can post as many as I want to this review.

    I'm pretty sure that if you're here, you already know about xkcd. But hey, why the heck not? Right? XKCD is why this Randall Munroe character is famous.

    The book comes from his "what if" blog, which is also very good.

    I took the book into work with

    One of the things that's nice about goodreads is that it lets you embed pictures. ...And one of the nice things about xkcd is that it has lots of pictures licensed under CC Attribution/Non-Commerical - meaning I can post as many as I want to this review.

    I'm pretty sure that if you're here, you already know about xkcd. But hey, why the heck not? Right? XKCD is why this Randall Munroe character is famous.

    The book comes from his "what if" blog, which is also very good.

    I took the book into work with me to show it around - you know - hipster-esque and what not. I'm reading this trendy, new book first.

    But the guys at my table were all like, "Yeah... I can see myself reading like 2 or 3 of these and then putting the book down..." Everyone more or less nodded in agreement - even though they thought the book was cool.

    Then I looked at the book a little bit more closely, flipped through a little bit and thought, "Huh... that sounds about right. That's probably what I'm going to do..."

    I'll add that one guy in my group really hate hypothetical questions... This is mostly because kids in arguments try to prove points by using them stupidly. You know: "But what if Hitler hadn't killed the Jews? Would you like him then?" or "What if Martin Luther King Jr.

    used violence? You have to admit, it's pretty crazy that we've given this guy a holiday, right?" He has a point.

    So, I took the book home - slightly shamed that I hadn't realized it was more for coffee tables than actual reading.

    But then I picked it up and read a couple. And a couple more. Next thing I know, a couple of days later the book is done - and I really enjoyed it. ...And I learned a lot. Well presumably.

    I did come on here hoping that some of the reviews would challenge Munroe's math. Or any of his conclusions. I mean, if I did on a couple of these, there are bound to be some flame wars in the comments sections of these review right? If I could take issue with a couple... I am

    a math guy.

    In case there aren't any flame wars yet, let me start one: On page 114 in answer to the question, "If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn't the common cold be wiped out?" he says,

    Then he has a footnote which reads,

    But that can't be right? Can it? It's tough to tell whether he's serious or not, because sometimes the footnotes are jokes, and other times they're not.

    But here, it made me question the math of the rest of the book. He's very meticulous in his calculations throughout, but here he doesn't factor in seasons, or how vast the globe is... Wouldn't it make more sense that when we have the virus we average more than one infection - and then people stay away from us - and are more cautious in general - which is why the number goes back down but doesn't die out completely?

    It took me a while to get over this, undermining the whole book for a couple seconds. Seriously, if he had just said "but not before you infect, on average, on other person." I wouldn't have thought twice about it.

    Of course, I doubted him on other footnotes: pg 134

    That can't be right can it?

    Munroe also interspersed "Weird (and worrying) questions from the what if? inbox. ...Honestly, most of these weren't any weirder than the questions he was already answering. And sometimes I think they only seemed weird, but I think he may have missed the trail.

    Like on page 236, the question is,

    There's a stick figure that says ..."Asking for a friend... former friend, I mean."

    But I think it's a legitimate question. And I'm pretty sure it comes from the movie

    - wasn't it a major plot point? So, Thomas, (the person who asked the question) wherever you are - I don't think you're a weirdo. (...Yeah, yeah, yeah... spoiler alert, if you're reading this in 1996... Although, I'd be willing to wager if anyone can travel through time, it's Munroe. He's sure studying that stuff. And Einstein. And Schrodinger. Also, probably J. Robert Oppenheimer.)

    And the book is so dated. He mentions the "new-fangled writing section" of the SAT on page 278. That was dropped

    . - Time travelling - am I right?

    Finally, Munroe - if you're reading this -

    just take the plunge and watch Dragon Ball Z already. You may hate it, but don't knock it till you've tried it, right?

    Seriously - loved the book. Thought I would like it, didn't think I would love it. Didn't think I would read it the whole way through - finished it in under 3 days.

    ...Also, shouldn't this go under like... a sci-fi shelf? Since the questions are hypothetical... Isn't this exactly what science-fiction is? It's just not told in narrative form in this case?

  • Manny

    A: Actually, less than you'd think.

    First, a little background about this book. If you're a geek, it's unputdownable, a word that, if you think carefully, means "cannot be put down". (You may not be aware of this fact, since the word is nearly always misused). So the geek who receives it is going to carry on reading through breakfast, through lunch, while he's supposed to be working, and on through dinner,

    A: Actually, less than you'd think.

    First, a little background about this book. If you're a geek, it's unputdownable, a word that, if you think carefully, means "cannot be put down". (You may not be aware of this fact, since the word is nearly always misused). So the geek who receives it is going to carry on reading through breakfast, through lunch, while he's supposed to be working, and on through dinner, ignoring the non-geek guests who have come to visit. He'll interrupt conversations every now and then to ask things like "Could you build a bridge across the Atlantic out of Lego bricks?" or "How close would you need to be to a supernova to be killed by the neutrino flux?". He'll finish just as the last guest leaves.

    There is a common myth, most likely spread by geeks, that what they do is somehow pretty important to Western civilization. If you're easily impressed by this kind of propaganda, you might expect that markets will crash as geek traders neglect their buy signals, nuclear experiments will explode as geek scientists look away from their control panels, and terrorists will strike with impunity as geek intelligence analysts fail to turn up for work. All that sounds pretty bad.

    But let's stop and consider for a moment. Is any of the above geek behavior novel or unpredictable? Hardly. Geeks are always doing this kind of thing, and society has learned to work around them. Important as they may be

    , there's always some dependable non-geek person ready to step in just in case the geek in question has stayed up all night playing Halo or watching a Star Wars marathon. The non-geek will cover for them until the geek has got over their fifteen hour internet speed-chess session and is ready to do whatever it is they're actually being paid to do.

    So delivering a copy of

    to every geek in the world will only really have two important effects. It will make a great many geeks very happy, and (assuming of course that the copies are paid for) it will turn Randall Munroe into a billionaire.

    And who could possibly have anything against that?

  • Valerie

    My evil plan of reading this book in small doses aloud to my students during math class has worked. Several of them have bought their own copies, and they are, I believe, planning to use their math skills for good, and not for world domination.

  • Patrick

    I've been a reader of XKCD for ages. Not just a reader, a fan. A big goey, geeky fan.

    So much of a fan that when I heard about this book, I went so far as to abuse my power as an author to get an Advance Reading Copy of the book, so that I could enjoy its deliciousness sooner. And... y'know... taunt people on the internet.

    And it worked. I got an early copy. And I treasured it. I petted it. It was precious to me. Precious.

    Then life got in the way. Conventions. Promotion for my own book launch.

    I've been a reader of XKCD for ages. Not just a reader, a fan. A big goey, geeky fan.

    So much of a fan that when I heard about this book, I went so far as to abuse my power as an author to get an Advance Reading Copy of the book, so that I could enjoy its deliciousness sooner. And... y'know... taunt people on the internet.

    And it worked. I got an early copy. And I treasured it. I petted it. It was precious to me. Precious.

    Then life got in the way. Conventions. Promotion for my own book launch. I had dad stuff to do. I had prep work for the yearly

    Then I had my book tour....

    Through all of this, I carried my precious ARC around, waiting for the time when I'd be able to spare the brainpower to read it. I even took it on tour with me. (Honestly, this book has more frequent flier miles than any three of you put together.)

    It wasn't until I got back home that I started it. I wanted something to read before I went to bed, and I picked What If because I was worried if I picked up another book I'd be reading half the night and it would screw up my already dysfunctional sleep schedule.

    Despite my best intentions, I read half the book that night. It cost me precious sleep I couldn't afford to lose. But I don't regret it. Not a bit.

    It's clever, but if you know anything about Randall Munroe, that won't come as a surprise to you. And it's funny, and witty (which are two different things, by the way.) But again to readers of XKCD this won't come as any sort of surprise.

    The surprise was how *easy* it was to read. There's some decent science in there, but it wasn't anywhere nearly as brain-taxing as I'd expected. Munroe does a brilliant job of explaining very complex concepts simply. That's a rare gift.

    The other surprise is how much it pulled me in. I expected to read the book in dribs and drabs over a couple weeks. Instead, I tore through it. That's not usually the case for me with non-fiction books.

    In brief, it's worth your time. Even if you haven't read his comic. Even if you haven't ever heard of Randall Munroe. Even if you're not into science. You should pick this up and read it. You'll be glad you did.

  • Lindsey Rey

    I highly recommend taking the audiobook route for this one unless you absolutely love very technical science. Wil Wheaton's narration was excellent and he delivered Munroe's humor perfectly! I loved this so much I bought a hard copy for my coffee table.

  • Nandakishore Varma

    An apple fell on Newton's head.

    "Why didn't this fall up instead of down?" Asked the scientist...

    ...And lo, the theory of gravitation was born.

    - Well, not really. The story is apocryphal in all probability, like George Washington and the cherry tree. But it does illustrate an important fact.

    Scientific enquiry starts with seemingly absurd questions.

    -----------------------------------

    Randall Munroe is a physics graduate who briefly worked for NASA: but his claim to fame is as the creator of the we

    An apple fell on Newton's head.

    "Why didn't this fall up instead of down?" Asked the scientist...

    ...And lo, the theory of gravitation was born.

    - Well, not really. The story is apocryphal in all probability, like George Washington and the cherry tree. But it does illustrate an important fact.

    Scientific enquiry starts with seemingly absurd questions.

    -----------------------------------

    Randall Munroe is a physics graduate who briefly worked for NASA: but his claim to fame is as the creator of the web comic

    , where stick figures make fun of serious philosophical questions and scientific theories. According to Wikipedia, his site gets 70 million hits per month. And reading this book, it's not hard to see why.

    Munroe reminds us that above all, science is fun.

    -----------------------------------

    xkcd has got an inbox where people can submit questions of any kind - and they do. The questions have to be seen to be believed. Randall Munroe takes all the questions seriously - and tries to provide "scientific" answers to each. This book is a collection of such questions and answers. The answers are sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but there is the spirit of serious scientific investigation (experiment - observation - interpretation) in each: accompanied by his signature stick figures and one-liners, they are a delight to read.

    Some sample questions:

    "What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?"

    "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?"

    "Supposing you did Drain the Oceans, and dumped the water on top of the Curiosity rover, how would Mars change as the water accumulated?"

    "When (if ever) did the Sun finally set on the British Empire?"

    "If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?"

    "If you suddenly began rising steadily at one foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first? Or something else?"

    These are just a sample. There are many, many more.

    -----------------------------------

    If you love science, or just like asking seemingly idiotic questions just for the heck of it, or both (like me!) - this book is for you. Or you can just hop over to Munroe's site and read these - and many more - there. You can even submit an absurd question yourself.

    This book is pure bliss.

  • Felicia

    AMAZING BOOK! I love love love it and frankly, there's no better book to read on the toilet. Off the toilet too, but I learned so much and the writing is so engaging and entertaining and just MARVELOUS. Of course in the style of xkcd, this and Atlas Obscura would be my go-to book gifts this year.

  • Diane

    This book opens with the best disclaimer I have ever seen:

    "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."

    That disclaimer really sets the tone for this fun book about science:

    This book opens with the best disclaimer I have ever seen:

    "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."

    That disclaimer really sets the tone for this fun book about science:

    Randall Munroe used to work at NASA, and now he creates the webcomic XKCD (which sounds less stressful than the NASA gig). On his website, he takes "absurd hypothetical questions" from readers and tries to answer some of them. Here are some of my favorite questions in this book:

    If you are interested to know any of the answers to those questions, this book is for you! What made this so much fun, aside from the ridiculous questions, is Munroe's sense of humor. Several times I laughed out loud at his drawings and his answers, which is not something that usually happens when I'm reading about science. Oh, and be sure to read his footnotes, which have even more jokes.

    I think this book would be a great gift for kids who love to ask crazy questions about how the world works. I think I would have loved it when I was 10.

    *I need to thank my GR friend Brendon for pointing out this marvelous book, because I had never heard of the author before. It's the miracle of Goodreads!

  • Paul Bryant

    Mr Munroe includes some “weird and worrying” questions from his website’s inbox which he presents without attempting to answer – one favourite was:

    I guess the answer might be “what pharmaceutical products have you ingested during the last four hours?” or “May I speak to your parents?”

    Another person named Jon Merrill asked

    Mr Munroe includes some “weird and worrying” questions from his website’s inbox which he presents without attempting to answer – one favourite was:

    I guess the answer might be “what pharmaceutical products have you ingested during the last four hours?” or “May I speak to your parents?”

    Another person named Jon Merrill asked

    Answer has to be “as fast as I will be running if I ever meet you Jon”.

    And a person called Kenneth asked

    Randall does not provide a response to that one but I would have said Kenneth, if only life were like that. Wouldn’t it be

    Everybody likes this book and I liked half of it, the other half was so far over my head it might have been a distant Andean condor croaking Sanskrit into a Bluetooth headset. Some of the stuff Randall devotes pages of detailed analysis to did not tickle my ivories, like

    I mean, get a life. Who the flook cares about a hair dryer in a box? But many are very interesting. He tackles the old chestnut

    He picks Rhode Island (it’s just big enough for everyone on Earth, surprisingly) as a designated place where this event might be staged, and imagines the result. In regard to the jump and the landing itself, not so much would result. But then he imagines the implications of all those people trying to get back home from Rhode Island. It’s terrible – it’s an apocalypse. If this mass jumping event was actually staged it would cause the immediate termination of civilisation and the death of billions.

    Yes it is a nice book but I do not recommend that you wolf down this book as I did in 2 days, because it’s like TOO MUCH and it can get annoying. You keep thinking of your own absurd questions –

    And really, there is one question which I really want to ask Randall, it’s actually been something I have been wondering about for a long time – you know those vending machines stuffed full of really unhealthy chocs and crisps and cokes? Well, imagine a person was chained to one of those and had an infinite amount of small change within arms reach. Then imagine the vending machine gets refilled by the usual contractor in the usual way (who never notices the chained person). So : how long would it take the captive to die from a constant diet of crap? If they were only eating chocs and crisps and drinking cokes? A month? Six months? A YEAR?? It’s really bugging me. I may have to launch a practical experiment.

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