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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What If? - A Serious Book Review of Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="260"]What If? by Randall Munroe What If? by Randall Munroe[/caption]

What If?, by Randall Munroe (ISBN-10: 0544272994, ISBN-13: 978-0544272996,) the creator of the hugely popular xkcd web comic, is one of those books you shouldn't take too seriously - except for the answers. In this book there are 63 scientific answers to some of the wackiest questions readers of xkcd could think up. In pure Randall Munroe style, he delves into not only the direct answers to these questions, but also the other 'what if?' scenarios the questions imply. Anyone familiar with Randall Munroe's work on xkcd will understand intuitively what I mean by that comment. If you don't, let's just say that Randall can be absurdly thorough in his answers. The more absurd the question, the more likelihood the answer will go to absurd lengths.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="250"]What If? the Blog What If? the Blog[/caption]

This book is not all completely new questions and answers. It is a compilation of answers already made on Randall's What If? blog consolidated here for easy perusal (49% of the book's content,) and new questions never before seen (the remaining 51%.) That 51% alone should make this book a winning choice for anyone who is looking to give a xkcd fan an excellent gift. As enticement, at the bottom of this review I have listed the section headings for each question - with an asterisk beside my personal favorites.

Gifting is, in fact, how I came into possession of my hardback copy. The book is also available in paperback and electronic formats, but you will be missing out on the full effect should you go those routes (seriously, hardback books have covers - hint, hint.) For one thing, I'm not certain the electronic versions come with Randall's accompanying drawings, which are half the humor in many of the answers. They are also quite necessary to some of his explanations because to see a thing is to understand a thing. That alone would lead me to believe they must be included in electronic copies, but I've never seen an electronic book include illustrations. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? His depictions of the scientific conclusions in classic xkcd stick-figure graphics serve to bring them into sharper focus than the explanations alone. And I know for a fact the audio version can not contain these gems, though Wil Wheaton is the narrator and that counts for something.

And as always, Randall Munroe does a superb job of researching his answers to give the best, most logically consistent answers these patently illogical questions do not deserve. At the back of the book is his acknowledgements section. After that is his reference section. Together they are six (6) pages long, with five (5) of those pages the references he utilized in his answers broken down by question. That alone gives me hours upon hours of reading up on my favorite answers. And if you are scientifically inclined as I am, you owe it to yourself to look at these references. Some of them are as thought-provoking as Randall's answers. Others are audio-visual joys like the YouTube video that goes with Glass Half Empty.

But wait, there's more. Interspersed among the questions with answers, are what Randall calls "Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox." There is an even dozen of these sections, and the questions are often bizarre and definitely cringe worthy. And as with all his answers, when provided he gives full credit to the asker. For example, the first question in the first of these sections is, "Would it be possible to get your teeth to such a cold temperature that they would shatter upon drinking a hot cup of coffee?" by Shelby Hebert. Thanks Shelby. I'm with Randall on this one. GAH!

This book is best enjoyed as a nightstand book IMO. At the end of a long day running the rat race, I would lay down in bed, turn on the nightstand lamp, turn off the overhead light, and spend 20 or 30 minutes reading two or three of the answers at a time. Whatever my troubles from the day, I'd quickly be chuckling, and sleep would find me with a smile on my face each night I did this. It was easy to rest peacefully, even contemplating what would happen of all the DNA disappeared from my body.

What If? by Randall Munroe is well written, well edited, humorous and even insightful. It explains the effect of a cause in ways that anyone can understand. It is science without being scientifically stilted. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone. It is a must have for any true fan of xkcd. And, don't be a miser. Buy the hardback edition and put it in your library collection. For certain you'll find out what's in a cover (hint, hint.) If nothing else, it'll be a great conversation piece the next time you have company over.

As promised, here are the 56 answer section headings:


  1. Global Windstorm

  2. Relativistic Baseball*

  3. Spent Fuel Pool

  4. New York-Style Time Machine

  5. Soul Mates

  6. Laser Pointer

  7. Periodic Wall of the Elements*

  8. Everybody Jump

  9. A Mole of Moles

  10. Hair Dryer

  11. The Last Human Light

  12. Machine-gun Jetpack

  13. Rising Steadily

  14. Orbital Submarine

  15. Short-Answer Section (contains 7 one or two or four-very-short paragraph answers)

  16. Lightning

  17. Human Computer

  18. Little Planet

  19. Steak Drop

  20. Hockey Puck

  21. Common Cold

  22. Glass Half Empty*

  23. Alien Astronomers

  24. No More DNA*

  25. Interplanetary Cessna

  26. Yoda

  27. Flyover States

  28. Falling with Helium

  29. Everybody Out

  30. Self-Fertilization*

  31. High Throw

  32. Lethal Neutrinos*

  33. Speed Bump

  34. Lost Immortals

  35. Orbital Speed

  36. FedEx Bandwidth

  37. Free Fall

  38. Sparta

  39. Drain the Oceans*

  40. Drain the Oceans: Part II

  41. Twitter

  42. Lego Bridge

  43. Longest Sunset

  44. Random Sneeze Call

  45. Expanding Earth

  46. Weightless Arrow

  47. Sunless Earth

  48. Updating the Printed Wikipedia

  49. Facebook of the Dead

  50. Sunset on the British Empire

  51. Stirring Tea

  52. All the Lightning

  53. Raindrop

  54. SAT Guessing*

  55. Neutron Bullet*

  56. Richter 15*



PS: If you've got an absurd but non-worrying question you can submit it to the What If? blog using the link at the bottom of the blog page. Enjoy!

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