Munroe, Randall. What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2014.

Reading this book is a lot like being one of ten sophomore engineering students drinking beer and smoking pot in a dorm room. You’ll learn some startling and frequently bizarre facts. You’ll also have a lot of fun. Munroe, a retired NASA roboticist, does the xkcd webcomic that draws millions of visitors (including me) every week.

His dry humor often involves physics and math, so it’s a somewhat more specialized taste than Garfield. He also runs the “What If?” website, where people submit inquiries and speculations of the sort that fascinate ten-year-olds (or stoned engineering students), but which the author attacks with a perfectly straight face, even though his tongue is often in cheek.

What happens if you take a swim in a spent nuclear fuel pool? Not much, as long as you don’t dive to the bottom. If you could print out money on your laser printer, what would be the effect on the world’s economy? Hardly noticeable. All good, right? On the other hand, the chance that aliens (even assuming they’re out there) would ever notice Earth by picking up our radio and television transmissions is infinitesimal. Some of his little essays may have practical application, like the way he works out the highest a man can throw a baseball — measured in giraffe-heights — or the fact that building a Lego bridge between London and New York would cost considerably more than simply buying all of London (at current real estate prices) and moving it physically across the Atlantic.

Munroe documents his findings pretty thoroughly and includes relevant stick-figure cartoons and drawings on nearly every page. You can easily lose a weekend with this book, not even counting reading sections of it aloud to your friends. And just how long will it take for Facebook to have more profiles of dead people than living ones?

Published in: on 13 February 2015 at 9:18 am  Leave a Comment  

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