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

What If? by Randall Munroe

What If? by Randall Munroe

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.

What If? the Blog

What If? the Blog

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!