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What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions Hardcover – September 2, 2014
by Randall Munroe (Author)
4.7 out of 5 stars
The creator of the webcomic that is wildly popular xkcd, funny and insightful answers to the most important questions you've never considered of asking.
Many millions of visitors come to xkcd.com every week to read the cult Randall Munroe webcomic. His stick-figure illustrations of technology, science languages, love, and language have a huge and devoted audience.
The xkcd fans ask Munroe many bizarre questions. What would you do if you hit a baseball that is pitched at 90 percent of the rate of light? What speed can you hit a speed bump when living and driving? If there were a robotic Apocalypse, how long will humanity be around?
In search of solutions, Munroe runs computer simulations and sifts through piles of classified military research memos as well as solves differential equations and talks to nuclear reactor managers. His replies are masterpieces of clarity and humor and are complemented by the distinctive comics from xkcd. They usually predict the complete destruction of humanity or at the very the very least, a massive explosion.
The book features new and never-before-answered questions, along with updated and expanded versions of the most popular answers from the xkcd website. What If? will be a must-read for those who love xkcd, and for anyone else who enjoys pondering the possibilities.
Best Book of the Month September 2014. Imagine if everyone in the world pointed with a laser towards the moon simultaneously? What if you could remove all the water out of the oceans? What if all lightning strikes in the world hit in the same location? What if you had a book that addressed strange or even absurd questions and was so captivating that you were compelled to skim the pages to discover what would happen if throw a baseball at a lightning speed? In The What Would You Do, Randall Munroe has published a book that does just that. Similar to his extremely well-known the xkcd webcomic Munroe employs reasoned thinking and study to hypothetical dilemmas that range between the philosophical and scientific (often absurd and never a fake) which probably seemed amazing when you were in elementary school, but they were never adequately answered. It's a rare mix of amusing and educating. --Jon Foro.
"What If? One of my Internet must-reads. I am looking forward to every new book, and I always devour it with pleasure." Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing
"Randall Munroe is a national treasure." --Phil. Plait
"For researchers, the cost of development is the need for specialization. If the primary goal of any scientist is to claim only a small portion of the field It's difficult for non-specialists to answer the crucial inter-disciplinary questions. For instance, is it possible to construct jetpacks using down-firing gun designs? The answer is yes, and they are able to turn to Randall Munroe, the author of the XKCD comic strip, which is loved by people who appreciate online culture. . . . For Munroe who writes with clarity and wit that he has honed through eight years of captions written on his website, knowing the problem might be difficult to resolve is no obstacle to exploring it." Wall Street Journal's blog Speakeasy
"By speaking the language of geeks. . . while dealing with relationships and the meaning of a computer-centric life, xkcd has become required reading for techies across the world ....The Internet has also created a bond between Mr. Munroe and his readers that is exceptional. They reenact in real life the odd ideas he puts forward in his strip." --The New York Times
"With his steady regimen of math jokes, physics jokes, and antisocial optimism, xkcd creator Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, scores traffic numbers in NBC.com or Oprah.com territory. One key to the strip's success may be that it doesn't just comment on nerd culture, it embodies nerd culture." Wired, in a magazine with "the people who have shaped the planet's past 20 years"
"Sometimes the beloved geek-chic webcomic xkcd is funny in a broadly accessible way. Sometimes it's achingly poignant, sometimes it's socially intelligent, and sometimes it's esoteric humor that programmers or scientists have to explain to the rest of us. But at its most ambitious, it either packs massive amounts of interesting information into a small space, or engages in breathtaking experiments with the medium .... [A]t its best [xkcd] isn't a strip comic so much as an idea factory and a shared experience." --Onion AV Club.
Reviewed in the United States on October 9, 2017
Best bathroom book ever... and I mean that in the very best possible way you can imagine.
If you want your party guests to quickly return to intelligent conversations after visiting the loo, while still providing them with appropriate reading material, you cannot possibly do better than this.
Short chapters, great illustrations, fascinating topics...
I don't even want to think about how many hours of research went into this book, but it is absolutely amazing and I have given away multiple copies to friends over the years. Very, very highly recommended if you have even a passing interest in science and geekiness...
Thank you Randall Munroe!
80 people found this helpful
Our family has enjoyed some of the what if scenarios and laughed about ...
Reviewed in the United States on October 3, 2016
Our family has enjoyed some of the what if scenarios and laughed about them. Our children are all teenagers, and they are able to understand the science as explained in the book. Their favorites are the fastest manmade object and the nuclear reactor swimming pool. The teenagers have asked us to read these aloud on long car trips.
93 people found this helpful
What if you bought this book and had a blast with Munroe's take on absurd questions?
Reviewed in the United States on February 18, 2017
If you enjoy Randall Munroe's webcomic, XKCD.com , you will love this fun compilation from his blog- What if? Readers present him with absurd questions such as: What would happen if everyone on earth was in the same place and they all jumped simultaneously? Or Could you make a periodic table with actual pieces of each element? Or What would happen if you went swimming in the containment pool of a nuclear reactor? Munroe applies his extensive knowledge to each question- with unexpected and entertaining results. I bought this book after thoroughly enjoying another of his books- Thing Explainer. I purchased both because I have enjoyed XKCD for years and wanted to support his efforts. I'm glad I did, because I will enjoy sharing both with family and friends!
59 people found this helpful
A go-to gift option if ever there was!
Reviewed in the United States on March 17, 2017
I purchased this as a gift but managed to read almost the entire book without breaking the binding before I gave it away. I witnessed a 17-year old boy shout with laughter and delight as he turned the pages for the first time. I laughed out loud while reading it, myself. "This is AWESOME!" he crowed, and immediately began reading excerpts to me. Definitely a hit! Most of my gifts tend to be literary. I believe books are so valuable; they can be read and shared over and over again throughout a lifetime. This book, in particular, could be given to so many diverse individuals! I can't think of a single acquaintance of mine who would not get a kick out of it. It would also be great to keep on the bedside table in the guest room for restless visitors. Enjoy!
46 people found this helpful
A great coffee-table book for the avid learner.
Reviewed in the United States on December 10, 2016
I love sharing the things I learn from this book with my roommates. Sadly, some of them don't understand why on earth I'd want to read what they deem a physics textbook that tells you nothing useful. I rebuttal by explaining that it's not too different from Mythbusters. Sometimes the absurd questions have definite answers, like what would happen to the batter if a pitcher pitched a ball at nearly the speed of light. Some simply don't have fun answers, but he takes them a step further to make them fun! Similar to Mythbusters, where the see what would have to happen to get the desired result. What happens if everyone on earth shined a laser pointer at the moon? Nothing noticeable. What about if everyone on the earth shined a megawatt laser at the moon? something much more interesting. This book is all kinds of fun and a great coffee-table book. I can highly reccomend it.
39 people found this helpful
Reviewed in the United States on December 10, 2015
This was much more detailed and advanced than I thought it would be. It popped up when I was searching for books for my son, books that had to do with subjects like anatomy and maps and other "intelligent" topics (vs. picture books and character stories). It's way too advanced for my son, but my husband will love it and perhaps can simplify the ideas for my son. The book itself is very interesting, but might be a bit much for those not too mathematically inclined.
31 people found this helpful
Become the Overlord of High School Nerds
Reviewed in the United States on September 13, 2014
When I opened this book, I was a bit worried that it wouldn't be worth it since I've read all the what-ifs online. Was I just paying for a physical version of those?
But the book is SO worth it. You can feel Randall's humor seep in every inch, from the preface to the "Weird and Worry questions" that he adds every five what-ifs or so that help spice up the flow. The organization of the questions also helps, as sometimes there are follow up questions to certain ones (such as what would the Earth look like if there was a drain at the bottom of the oceans, which lead to what if that drain emptied out in Mars) or questions about a topic (LIGHTNING!!).
If that description doesn't entice you enough, I will also let you know that I have five people begging me to finish the book faster so that they can borrow it and read it. If you're a parent of a nerdy high schooler and you want to be a "better friend" to him or her, this book is it. Seriously. Their reach of command over their friends will become so high that you won't have to pack lunch for them because they're getting free food, you never have to pick them up because they're getting free rides, and they might not even have to write their college essays.
Okay the last one is a stretch if your kid is applying to Stanford because no one wants to write four five hundred word supplemental essays.
But don't tell them I said that if you're not planning to get this for them because then they will beg you every day for this book and as such kid, I know how annoying I can be :D
I do have to add that if you're an avid reader of his online What-Ifs, then you will find it very frustrating that your ability to hover over the pictures to see the alt-text has now been taking away due to the conversion of the medium. Also a bit weird to have to refer to the footnotes. But after reading "Yes, centrifugal force. I will fight you," you will forget about the little things that trip you up while you read.
5 people found this helpful
Funny, Original, and Interesting! Makes me remember a piece of my childhood
Reviewed in the United States on December 8, 2019
When I was a child, my brother would draw these 4 panel stick figure comics, just for kicks. They would have such random content, portraying everything from everyday life to scientific wonders. In addition, the extent of my drawing skills is stick figures - I had countless drawings of stick figures fighting each other in some interplanetary war.
This book brought back those old, nostalgic memories. Reading through each question has made me laugh to myself, at the originality of the author's response as well as the ridiculousness of the scenario. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants a fun read, or wants to gift such a read to someone else.
One person found this helpful
Reviewed in the United States on November 26, 2018
Bought this for my 10 year old advanced reader (reads at 10th - 11th grade level).
She enjoys this book very much. Good thing about this book: you don’t have to start from chapter 1. You can skip to where you want to read. I also listened to this one on audible. It was very enjoyable.
Two thumbs up by my 10 year old daughter.
5 people found this helpful
Reviewed in the United States on January 6, 2021
If you have a teenage boy who drives you crazy asking you "what if" or "which would you rather" questions, this is for him! Yes, I have one of those boys, and sure enough, on Christmas day, as he leafed through the book, he was exclaiming "Hey, I was just asking this question!" Definitely a hit. Side note: I once read that boys are more likely to read non-fiction books than fiction. As a mom of a lot of "readers," I was puzzled as to why this smart kid could not seem to finish a fiction book. I realized he DOES gravitate toward non-fiction, so this book follows in that vein.
Entertaining & Educational for all ages
Reviewed in the United States on April 22, 2015
This was a gift for my adult son with a super high functioning "science" brain. He enjoys solving problems, hypothetical's and logic games. The info in this book covers relatively simple question & answers to some things we all have pondered at least once in our life...depending on how old you are. If your interested in finding out the answer to "If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?"...read this book. Ok, that's a simple one but there are also Q's that require several pages to explain and answer.
You don't have to be a science geek to understand the answers as they are written in simple language everyone can grasp. The print is large so this would be a great book for anyone in elementary school all the way to your Great-Grandma and there are lots of stick figure drawings & diagrams! From the front cover to back, inside the front and back covers there are entertaining pictures and knowledge. For a hard cover book with a nice dust jacket its a pretty good price too at around $13.
4 people found this helpful
Reviewed in the United States on October 18, 2018
I saw this at a seminar I was attending, as one of the participants brought it to read when we weren't involved in the meeting. I enjoyed the couple of discussion we got into over some of the topics in the book that I ordered one for me and the fam. The kids loved it. It's very similar to the "Because Science" Youtube clips. Where the author answers, scientifically / mathematically, etc. some of the really bizarre questions he's received over the years.
The one that got the most heated discussion around the dinner table was "What if there really was only 1 other person in the whole world who was your true soulmate? What are the chances that you would actually end up with that person?"
Bottom line; we all really enjoyed the book and would definitely recommend.
2 people found this helpful
Reviewed in the United States on December 9, 2020
I bought this for my very smart 16 year old grandson. It is always my practice to read whatever I give to my kids, so, I read this book and could not put it down! It's very well written and full of humor, so, it was a fun and interesting read. I have to admit that I'm not a science geek (he is), but, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It might not be for everybody, but, if you have a kid or a person that likes sciencey, geeky stuff, they will love this book. I plan to tell him that if he doesn't like it, to give it back to me because I loved it!
Great book, lots of good (if useless) information. A must-buy for xkcd fans!
Reviewed in the United States on April 14, 2015
If you have read *ANY* of the xkcd website by Randall Munroe, you know what you are getting into here. As the title says, it answers serious scientific answers to absurd questions. Want to know if you can use a balloon to paraglide? Drop from the top of a building and grab a flagpole to launch yourself back up? xkcd is the place to find all that.
Some of the questions answered here are on the website, but that shouldn't stop you from buying this book. If you don't appreciate the effort to research the gravitational force of an apple (either the fruit or the electronic gadget), you may not fully appreciate this book. However, if you get a kick out of nerdy minutia (and know what minutia means), this is DEFINITELY the book for you.
Will any of this new knowledge save you, or your loved ones? Probably not. However, you can have the satisfaction knowing that you have researched what the earth would look like if all the water drained down the Mariana Trench. And have cute stick-figure drawings to show people, in case they, too, want to know this information.
9 people found this helpful
Best book for scientific, math, astronomy, geology, etc nerds on the planet.
Reviewed in the United States on September 6, 2014
Best book for scientific, math, astronomy, geology, etc nerds on the planet. This is a collection of the weird questions one is afraid to ask. Then we get real scientific answers from a real scientist who knows his stuff.
Advice: If you don't know the basics of science and math, much of this will be beyond you. But Randall Munroe actually makes the most complex scientific situations easily understood. And the humor, much of it dark, is exceptional. There is a little non PC, but in a way that makes the craziest of the PC stuff funny and enjoyable. If I did not know better, I would, based on his humor, think Randall was British, but he is not. Randall was a roboticist for NASA and has an real live asteroid (4942 Munroe) named for him.
Randall is the creator of the xkcd comic. If you like xkcd, you will love this book. You can buy a signed copy for more on his website, but I could not wait and got my unsigned copy through Amazon. (It reads nearly the same.)
6 people found this helpful
The author takes numerous absurd questions like that and answers them scientifically
Reviewed in the United States on November 1, 2015
If you are interested in what would happen if a baseball was thrown at near the speed of light, then this is the book for you. The author takes numerous absurd questions like that and answers them scientifically. If you got enough people to shine laser pointers all at once at the moon, how many would you need to be able to see the light hit the moon's surface? What would happen if the earth stopped spinning? These questions and many others are given a scientific answer. Randall Munroe is a scientific cartoonist on the net. He publishes the web page xkcd. If you know that web site, then you know how wacky he can be. But I found a lot to think about as I was reading the book. It is easy to think of Mr. Munroe's answers as being "skin deep" with little substance, but each answer has been thought about and researched so that even though we are coming from the absurd you can bet that if a baseball was thrown at near the speed of light, the resulting scenario would probably be what Munroe suggests. This book brings out the "little child" scientist in each of us. It was a great recreational read.
2 people found this helpful
Reviewed in the United States on November 10, 2017
This book is amazing and very enjoyable. Many of the questions might seem nonsense, but you learn a lot about science by the answers the author give to them.
What I like most is the author way of thinking and how he addresses the problem in a very funny way. Many answers might not be “perfect” or 100% accurate, but he finds an approach that might get him close enough to a correct answer.
At the end, what matters the most is the process to get the answer rather than the answer itself; and like I said before, you learn a lot about science just by following this process.
One person found this helpful
Reviewed in the United States on June 22, 2017
It's a challenge to get my boyfriend's 14-yo son to read. He's fascinated by science, and also constantly asking absurd hypothetical questions. So I got him this. I have never seen him voluntarily camp out on the couch with a book for a whole afternoon before. He giggled all the way through, and was really proud of himself for finishing the book in just a couple of weeks (fast for him). It also answered some of his silliest questions, and questions so silly even he'd never though of them - all with a scientific accuracy that two professional scientists raising a science-minded kid can get behind. Win-win!
One person found this helpful
Great book with awesome facts for silly hypotheticals
Reviewed in the United States on June 15, 2015
(copied from Goodreads)
If you're unaware of the webcomic xkcd I feel bad for you son. I got 99 questions, but Goku ain't one.
Randall Munroe used to work for NASA but he quit to draw several math & science cartoons every week (or so I imagine). He also started a blog, offering "serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions" and this book is a collection of some of the best online What If questions & answers, along with a bunch of new ones.
I've been a fan of xkcd for years, but it wasn't until a year or two ago that I found a twitter feed that alerted me to new comics. (You see, I'm really bad at visiting a site two times a week to get new content without a tweet giving me a link when said content is available).
I've read a few of Randall's What If blogs (at least I think I must have because a few chapters felt very familiar), but I'm no regular so the book was almost all new to me.
Munroe is a brilliant writer. His drawings are simple, yet detailed, and highly accurate. His scientific background (and extensive research) leads him to give great (and sometimes ridiculous) answers to silly questions such as "Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?" or "What if a rainstorm dropped all of its water in a single giant drop?"
The book is definitely more entertaining than it is educational (I can't think of any specific fact that I learned that would ever come in handy in life), but there is definitely some great math and science within these pages. I already preordered his next book, Thing Explainer—a collection of line drawings describing interesting things, by using only the 1000 (or rather, "ten hundred") most common English words. For an example of what I mean, check out this webcomic describing the Saturn V (Up Goer Five) rocket: http://xkcd.com/1133/
One person found this helpful
Making Science Entertaining with Explosions and Destruction
Reviewed in the United States on October 3, 2014
A reader comes away from Randall Munroe's book, which is subtitled "Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions," with the sense that Munroe likes to blow things up and burn them to the ground, and that may well be the case. Many of his answers are accompanied by the standard disclaimer—do not try this at home—except when says, "If you do do this at home, please send me the video."
Munroe is a former robotics expert with NASA who "dropped out" to draw web comics. His most famous creation is xkcd, where three times a week he publishes a new comic, many of them presenting a fascinating—or ludicrous—take on math, physics, technology or life. His drawing style is at once simplistic and instantly recognizable. His people are stick figures, but that doesn't diminish their cleverness. This book is illustrated with similar drawings, often to provide the punch lines to jokes delivered in the text or to demonstrate a point.
Since he's obviously very clever and resourceful, and seems willing to tackle enormous questions, his readers and fans often ask him questions. Some of these are, quite frankly, disturbing. These he relegates to interludes between batches of chapters with the appropriate heading "Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox." Usually he answers these questions with a simple NO! or a scream, or a comic of the author reporting the questioner to the police, the FBI or Homeland Security.
The other questions are of the sort that college kids might come up with late at night in dorm rooms or geeks would get into heated arguments over at ComicCon. No one asks Munroe who would win in a fight between this superhero and that one, but maybe he's keeping those for the follow-up.
Many questions are about a matter of scale. How many of these objects would you need to do that? What would happen if something this big suddenly showed up or plummeted to the earth? A disturbingly large number of them ask what would happen to a person if something cataclysmic happened, like the sudden disappearance of all of their DNA (his answer unexpectedly segues into the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer).
Some questions have straightforward, simple answers. "What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly turned off?" Everyone would freeze to death. However, Munroe is rarely content to stop there. He expands on these answers, taking them to a logical (or, some might say, illogical) extreme. He ups the ante, going far beyond what the person submitting the question had in mind—far beyond what is even remotely possible, so the answers become thought experiments. Many of his answers end with the extinguishing of life on earth or the destruction of the planet.
But there's a method to his madness. He isn't just speculating. Okay, he does occasionally speculate, but he usually relies on hard science, with a few assumptions. While the book is entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny, it is also educational. There are very few formulas (the book does have an extensive bibliography where there are, no doubt, more than enough equations to satisfy those who demand more rigorous proofs), and Munroe takes some numerical shortcuts, but one is left with the impression that he has given these questions a great deal of thought and conducted considerable research.
This would be a terrific book to give to someone with a burgeoning curiosity about the nature of things, as it demonstrates how entertaining science can be. Many of the answers are astonishing and counterintuitive, until Munroe lays out the reasoning behind them. What would happen to a glass of water if the lower half of the liquid were suddenly replaced by a vacuum. Not at all what a person might anticipate. If humanity were to die off (there he goes again), what would be the last remaining manmade source of light? Again, he digs deep, pursuing some unexpected avenues.
Plus, for people who appreciate Munroe's unique, twisted sense of humor, the book is drop dead funny. But, as humorist Dave Barry often says, don't try to duplicate his experiments at home. By his own admission, he is not an expert on these subjects. Because he is willing to consult true experts, he just sounds like one.
One person found this helpful
Reviewed in the United States on April 27, 2016
"What If?" thought experiments are highly re-readable, plus it contains several good ones that aren't on the website such as "What if all of your DNA disappeared" and "What if you touched a piece of neutronium?", which are two questions that you will definitely want to know the answers too.
I hope Munroe has enough time to write a Volume Two or at least an expanded edition because after this book was published, "What If?" finally featured a thought experiment that destroyed the universe. Which is really the only way to end a book like this, as if it were escalating catastrophes inflicted by a curious child-god upon a virtual universe. Which is also a pretty good description of "imagination" I guess .
One person found this helpful
I particularly enjoyed the authors explanations as well
Reviewed in the United States on March 28, 2017
The book "What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions" by Randall Munroe, provided very interesting explanations to very odd hypothetical questions. Despite not reading the blog, I found that when I started the book I did not feel out of place. The questions discussed were so random that it made it very enjoyable to turn the page and see what was next. As I was reading this book I noticed that I was progressing slower then I usually would. At first this was worrying to me, but after some internal thought I realized I was just thinking about what I was reading more. I particularly enjoyed the authors explanations as well. He provided a very in depth explanation on subjects that I had never even thought about. Despite this book being a hardy read, I really enjoyed the authors descriptions and the questions asked.
Plausible answers to silly off the wall questions. Enjoyable read. Best for moments when you have just a little time.
Reviewed in the United States on September 27, 2018
Another purchase my wife bought for me.
I really enjoy this book. It is not a captivating read that refuses to let you put it down, but its perfect for those moments where you have a couple minutes and want some truly interesting information. The author has clearly spent his time to provide a mostly scientific approach to answering silly questions. It's fun, and the science that is presented doesn't completely fly in the face of logic. The plausible answers for silly scenarios that make for an enjoyable read.
Great book. I wish this had been given to me in a math class when I was in school.
Reviewed in the United States on September 12, 2014
Mr. Munroe has been entertaining us for years, while sneakily teaching us. This book, by itself, is worth four stars. I would happily give it five stars, but much of the material has been covered on his website. Confused? I'll clear it up a bit.
As a visual artist, the author is somewhat lacking the technical ability of say... Rembrandt or DaVinci or even Dali (but now he can claim to have been compared to those artists... I'd put that on my resume), but his art does cut straight to the heart of the matter. As someone who is more scientist than artist, I find that his art speaks to me much more than say... Warhol or Leibovitz. It's pretty cool to see an artist that speaks my language.
His write-ups are thoughtful, cutting to the heart of the matter in most cases. He doesn't get too entrenched in hammering down every last detail. Instead, his methodologies are incredibly applicable to real life situations (even though his actual problems are unlikely in the extreme). These techniques will be used to figure out which problems need to be paid attention to, and if they are truly problems, to what magnitude. I wish Mr. Munroe had been teaching one of my physics or math classes...
If you're the kind of reader that is going to love these discussions, absolutely enjoying the content, and not give anything back to the artist who made it, then you may have a problem with this book. Particularly if you didn't read the review all the way through.
I'm giving the book 5 stars because he's taught us so much, without any real direct contribution from me. The website and the book are fantastic, even if much of the book is already contained within the website. If you buy this book and give it to the right kid, you'll change his life. That's a good book by any estimation.
2 people found this helpful
Thought-provoking bathroom reading
Reviewed in the United States on January 31, 2016
Picked up this book as a gift after seeing it on a friend's coffee table and spending a good part of the afternoon flipping through it. The book is written by the creator of XKCD, so that right there should give you some idea about how detailed the responses are. The book is written in a Q and A style, with typical answers spanning the course of 2-4 pages. There's a whole bunch of random information in there. This is not the place to look if you need serious answers to real questions, but it's a fun brain exercise to see how the author arrives at actual answers to absurdist questions. This would be a fun book to leave in a bathroom or waiting area, as you can read it in short increments.
2 people found this helpful
Bernie GourleyTop Contributor: Fantasy Books
Reviewed in the United States on November 7, 2015
If you like the tv show "Mythbusters" and snarky and / or silly humor, you’ll love Randall Munroe’s "What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions". Munroe gained internet fame (still not the same as real fame) drawing the popular webcomic "xkcd". The book’s subtitle says it all. Munroe solicited questions from his web-legion (not the same as a real legion) of fans, selected a collection that he found intriguing, and answers them with a mix of science and humor. Munroe’s bona fides to answer questions of a technical nature include a degree in physics from Christopher Newport University and a brief career as a roboticist for NASA—though he’s fond of pointing out that that he’s just a web-cartoonist whenever his answers might be wrong.
Each chapter presents a detailed answer to one of the absurd hypothetical questions. Most of the chapters are just a few pages long and feature the same variety of stick-figure cartoon that grace the "xkcd" website. He covers 60-ish questions in the book. Scattered throughout the book are sections called “Weird (and Worrying) Questions” which usually don’t receive answers but merely cartoons that mock the demented mind that came up with said question. (If that seems harsh, keep in mind that many of the questions he does answer are pretty warped (e.g. setting off a nuke in a hurricane or whether steady rising would result in death by freezing or suffocation).)
Like the "Mythbusters", Munroe does an excellent job of selecting questions that have unexpected answers. For example, the author addresses the question of what would happen if one went swimming in a spent fuel pool (nuclear fuel rods are stored underwater for a long time after they come out of the reactor before they can go to dry storage.) The answer: Nothing if one swam near the surface, but if you swam down and touched the casks, you’d die in minutes. Munroe also takes liberty to find the more interesting unintended consequences embedded in some of the questions. For example, he dismissively answers the old question about whether every human on the planet standing as close together as possible and jumping so as to land simultaneously would have any effect on the planet. Instead, he takes on the questions of the logistics of getting everyone to one place, how much space humanity would take up, and how / whether people could get out of this state of shoulder-to-shoulder proximity alive.
Some of the questions are impossible to answer with certainty but Munroe takes them on when he can offer reasonable, scientifically-based speculation. For example, what will the area that is currently New York City look like in a million years? His answer is more or less: Who cares? Humans will be long gone and veins of plastic in past landfills will be the only evidence that we ever existed. Another such question is how much power can Yoda achieve through application of the Force?
Besides the many physics question (e.g. What’s the fastest speed at which one can hit a speed bump and live?), there are others that involve mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Mathematics questions include calculations of the likelihood that one would find his or her soulmate if each person really only had one soul mate. (My Indian friends might be pleased to know that we’d all be screwed if that were the case.) There are actually many questions that hinge on mathematical calculations.
One of my favorite chapters is in the domain of chemistry, and it answers what would happen if one tried to make a wall by collecting together blocks of all of the elements in the periodic table in the relative position in which they exist on the table? Answer: Nothing good. There are a few biologically centered questions as well. Munroe takes on the question of how much computing power human brains collectively have—and the more interesting unasked question of how human “computing” is different from that of machines.
I’d highly recommend this book for science lovers. In fact, even people who don’t care for science may find this book palatable because of its humor and the fascinating questions it addresses.
Reviewed in the United States on July 21, 2021
All the things I never knew that I wanted to know! Now at last, I know what percentage of the world's ants it would take to fill up a football stadium. Lots of entertaining reading, interspersed with the author's witty comments and droll cartoons. Don't miss it!
One person found this helpful
Can you build a jetpack with downward firing machine guns?
Reviewed in the United States on September 3, 2014
I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining this book was. I bought the book on pre-order back in April and promptly forgot about it. When it was sent to my Kindle in September I thought these would be serious scientific questions along the lines of what you'd see Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about on the History Channel or something. Instead this book is full of entertaining and absurd questions that are answered in a fairly thorough scientific way. Not only that but the author is a physicist AND cartoonist, so the book is illustrated with stick figure cartoons that are actually both relevant to the science and funny.
The book addresses questions such as what happens if everyone on Earth shined a laser pointer at the moon? What would happen if a pitcher threw a fastball at the speed of light? Can you build a jetpack with downward firing machine guns? The book takes the questions in a sort of Mythbusters sort of way (meaning that a plausible explanation is attempted first then an extreme example just because!). Usually each chapter ends with we all die.
The book has many humorous quotes and analogies, and can make many scientific scenarios understandable to the average person (non-scientist). "Think of the elements as dangerous, radioactive, short lived Pokemon"
I highly recommend for anyone who likes science, humor, the history channel, the show Mythbusters, random what if questions, or for that know-it-all friend (we all have one). This book is a fun read!
One person found this helpful
Reviewed in the United States on January 16, 2019
I bought this for a middle school aged child for Christmas. I am not sure if he liked it, but I enjoyed flipping through the pages before I wrapped it. There is a ton of crazy random information somehow put together accompanied with some fun little pictures with stick figures to help you visualize whatever information you are reading about.
A great gift for someone that you have no idea what to give to them, and also this book is a great way to pass the time if you are bored.
Informative, surprising and very fun
Reviewed in the United States on August 1, 2015
The creator of the "xkcd" comic provides "Serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions."
Yes, serious in intelligence -- Munroe is an incredibly smart guy with an incredibly smart group of math/science collaborators -- but playful in execution as they think waaay outside the box and ramp up nerdy questions to full-on exaggeration and, often, global annihilation. :)
It's hard to choose favorites from the ~50 Q&As but here are three to give a feel for the questions and answers:
* "If every human somehow simply disappeared from the face of the Earth, how long would it be before the last artificial light source would go out?" -- turns into an overview of all of our power-generating technologies and ends up centuries into the future, with the glow from nuclear waste.
* "What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person? Were they lonely?" -- puts early explorers in the running, but then settles on "the six Apollo command module pilots who stayed in lunar orbit [...alone while the] other astronauts landed on the moon" -- about 3585 km apart. And no, since the pilots tended to be introverts, they felt solitude not loneliness.
* "What if a Richter magnitude 15 earthquake were to hit America at, let's say, New York City? What about a Richter 20? 25?" After answering that a 15 would blow up the planet, Munroe turns instead to low-magnitude events, from Magnitude -1 ("A single football player running into a tree in your yard") and moving entertainingly downward to Magnitude -15 ("A drifting mote of dust coming to rest on a table").
It's informative, surprising and very fun.
Five-word hook: Randall Munroe writes a book.
Reviewed in the United States on March 26, 2020
This book makes me infinitely happy. I love Munroe's humor, and this book doesn't disappoint. (It should be pretty apparent to anyone looking at the cover that it's the author of xkcd, but I'm putting it out there for anyone who's missed it: IT'S AUTHORED BY THE CREATOR OF XKCD.)
I appreciate his willingness to delve into mysteries that we never even knew we wanted to explore and the seriousness with which he scientifically examines them. Then there's always his snark that punctuates his explanations. My only problem is that I don't have enough self-control, so I'm in danger of finishing it all instead of doing things I'm supposed to.
Reviewed in the United States on November 17, 2014
This book is awesome. The author is some crazy smart ex-NASA physicist or quit to draw cartoons. The questions posed in a "Dear Abby" fashion are funny or hmmm moments, but the author gives fascinating answers that are a combo of jokes mixed with science, math or incredibly hard parts of each. The stick figure cartoons only add to the enjoyment. I had no idea most of the time what the actual science or math equations he was talking about about, but you know, I was so entertained, it didn't matter.
I am learning so much from this book (taking awhile because you actually have to sit and think and think some more). Even if you don't have a science background, this book/Kindle book is a must-have. Great gift for college students. Q:If a person starts rising from the ground at 1 meter an hour, how long would it take them to reach space. A: Science, Joke about someone hanging out a window and grabbing them, science, hope you brought a jacket, science, might have brought a sandwich cause this may take awhile. Note: Not actual words from book, but approximate.
2 people found this helpful
Timothy HaughTop Contributor: Baby
Reviewed in the United States on October 13, 2014
What kind of person does it take to seriously consider questions like “From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?” or “In the movie 300 they shoot arrows up into the sky and they seemingly blot out the sun. Is this possible, and how many arrows would it take?” Fortunately, there is such a person. Randall Munroe not only takes these questions seriously but he answers them to the best of his scientific ability. And, double fortunately, he has published his answers in this excellent book.
Yes, many of the questions he addresses are various levels of weird (and worrying); however, it’s surprising how truly interesting some of the questions are. Who hasn’t wondered, at some point, if each person has only one soul mate, what would happen if everyone on earth jumped from the same spot at the same time, or how high a human can throw something? These are just a handful of the questions Mr. Munroe tackles.
Of course, many of the questions he answers end (or, sometimes, begin) with the destruction of the world and humankind. Even so, he answers everything with aplomb, humor, and as much accuracy as is humanly possible. For anyone whose imagination has ranged widely and who has wondered the impossible, this is a book to read.
One person found this helpful
Reviewed in the United States on November 13, 2014
QUICK HIT -- Fans of Munroe’s webcomics xkcd and what if? will thoroughly enjoy the new content in this book, but it’s the non-readers I envy: those who get to sit down to three hundred brand new pages of wacky hypothetical situations and laugh their way through the well-researched answers.
I don’t remember the very first xkcd comic I ever read, but I can tell you this: it’s the first website in my favorites bar that I click on every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, without fail. And when he came out with his new “What If?” series, I loved them even more. You get the chance to see a lot more personality in those articles, plus you get all this brilliant physics/engineering background from a guy who literally worked at NASA.
As ridiculous as the hypothetical situations are (e.g., “What if everyone in the world jumped at the same time?” “What if you built a periodic table of elements out of cubes made of those elements?”), you get this sense of credibility in the depth of the answers. Randall takes his goofy questions seriously. But not too seriously—after all, each page is filled with jokes, quirky drawings, and, of course, the sheer comedy that comes from the consequences of these ridiculous situations.
Should you buy this book? If you’ve never read any of Randall’s work, you could always give it a test run over at http://what-if.xkcd.com. Plus, if you like it, you’ve got over 1400 comics of his to catch up on, too! It would make a great gift, too, for anyone who likes science, humor, or both of the above.
Spending a few hours with a smart alec who really is smart
Reviewed in the United States on May 7, 2021
What's more fun than speculating about physical events that could not really happen?
This book is based on absurd scientific questions to which hilariously serious answers are given.
You don't need an MIT education to understand this book, but it does help if you have a BTAHS education in science. (BTAHS = better than American high school)
Reviewed in the United States on April 2, 2019
Randall Munroe is a genius. He is educated and worked for NASA. He is also very funny. He is a genius of both worlds.
This book is so entertaining that I couldn't get past a few pages before I had to find someone to share it with.
This would make an AMAZING Gift for anyone with curiosity and/or a love for science. Remember, not all science is serious stuff. Reading the questions in the book makes me realize my curiosity isn't as strange and uncommon as my friends and family think HAHA! Even I knew C4 on a boomerang isn't a good idea.
Worth every penny-a big hit with everyone.
Reviewed in the United States on December 27, 2016
I got this book for my brother who pretty much has everything. He is a machinist who has to come up with solutions to plastic die problems all the time so I thought he would enjoy this book of crazy weird situations and possible conclusions. As it turned out everyone thought the book was pretty cool. My brother seemed to like it as well so it was a success. So if you don't know what to get someone who is a thinker and ponders things that other people might not than this is a great gift to give. It is a great gift for anyone any age group.
2 people found this helpful
More fun than 600 spiders riding bicycles on a rapidly expanding ball of plasma. How much fun is that? Ask Randall.
Reviewed in the United States on October 23, 2016
I can't recommend Randall Munroe's books enough, but this one certainly delivers a unique and fun experience. The explanations are simple enough to understand with a basic grasp of physics and math. But Munroe always takes the answers in a totally different direction than you expect. This book should basically be required reading for high school and college physics. Teachers, are you listening? This would be a quick way to get students engaged and to help teach them how to both efficiently estimate and how to thoroughly research their problems. More fun than 600 spiders riding bicycles on a rapidly expanding ball of plasma. How much fun is that? Ask Randall.
2 people found this helpful
Great Book for the Family Nerd
Reviewed in the United States on January 9, 2019
My 23-year-old nerd son read this entire book out loud to our family the first day he got it! He loves all the weird details and mindless trivia. The author has obviously taken a few math classes and knows how to google stuff (or maybe he actually does research!). Anyhow, it entertained us all for several hours (although we are pretty easily amused). I highly recommend it to all the nerds out there who have a good sense of humor.
Scientiic answers to truly strange questions.
Reviewed in the United States on June 28, 2015
This one is just plain fun. The author has a wonderful sense of humor and a very readable writing style.
The book takes pages from his web site (google what-if) and gives serious scientific answers to truly strange questions. Examples; From what height would you have to drop a steak for it to be fully cooked by the time it hit the ground? If everyone on earth pointed a laser pointer at the moon would the moon's brightness change? What would happen if you made a periodic table of the element with the actual elements? His advice on that one is don't try it. What would happen if a pitcher threw a baseball toward home plate at the speed of light?
He doesn't just answer the question he takes them to the ultimate extreme going way past the actual question.
The chapters are short, a page or 3 at the most so you can easily read a chapter or 3 on a work break or at lunch.
If you have a scientific background or are a complete novice you will enjoy this book.
Reviewed in the United States on March 19, 2015
I am a regular visitor to xkcd.com. I do not remember when or how I found the site, but I became a fan almost immediately. In the past I have tried to describe the website. It is extremely nerdy but very approachable. It is amusing with an edge. It is smart yet simple. It is definitely more than just jokes but a sharp satire on the information age. Well sort of. There just is not a simple definition.