REVIEW: Answers to the absurd

17 Jan 2016


What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

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

RANDALL Munroe has been busy amusing the geeks of the world with his terrific webcomic xkcd for a decade. Intelligent and witty, his nerdy, stick-figure creations merge science humour with observations on life, offering insightful statements on the human condition that have won him a legion of ardent fans around the globe.

More recently, the former Nasa roboticist set up a section on his website where he fielded preposterous questions from his readers, using his impressive scientific knowledge and math skills to come up with elaborate, accurate explanations to seemingly nonsensical impossibilities. This feature has since spawned the book What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, a collection of delightfully bizarre user-submitted questions that have been answered with wit and wisdom by Munroe, and augmented with his signature stick-figure illustrations. Nearly half the book’s content is culled from his What If? blog, while the rest comprises of new discussions.

Like the television programme, MythBusters, the book What If? ventures into the world of oddities, unravelling theoretical conundrums that have been thought up by the writer’s very imaginative fans who are never afraid to step outside the realm of plausibility. Munroe dissects these problems by applying scientific principles and modelling the peculiar scenarios, and then keeps exploring the queries to their logical extreme, often eradicating humanity or destroying the planet in the process.

The content takes readers on a varied range of science fiction-esque adventures, while the xkcd-like drawings as well as the amusing footnotes add humour to the discourse. Munroe drains the earth’s oceans through a circular pool at the bottom of Challenger Deep in one answer, then dumps the water on top of the Curiosity rover on Mars in the next. Elsewhere, he details what would happen if the earth suddenly stopped spinning but the atmosphere retained its velocity, discusses the impact of high-speed baseballs pitched at nearly the speed of light, looks into the complexities of travelling a billion years back or a million years forward in time, compares the computing power of humans and smartphones, finds out how many unique English tweets are possible, calculates the number of Lego bricks needed to build a functional bridge from London to New York, and delves into dozens of other nerdy scenarios with gusto. What Munroe doesn’t address in the book, however, is what would happen if a Tyrannosaurus rex is lowered into the Sarlacc pit, and the omission of that query, despite its illustration on the book cover, might make you feel a little cheated.

“As the planet heats up, we may lose our water entirely and acquire a rock vapour atmosphere, as the crust itself begins to boil. Eventually, after several billion more years, we will be consumed by the expanding sun.” — Excerpt from the book

The book also proves, once and for all, that the person who said “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” was clearly lying. Interspersed throughout the text are “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox”. “If people had wheels and could fly, how would we differentiate them from airplanes?” asks one anonymous reader. “How many houses are burned down in the United States every year?” “What would be the easiest way to increase that number by a significant amount (say, at least 15%)?” asks another. Munroe doesn’t answer these queries, and those curious about the nutritional value of the human body or the logistic issues in raising an army of apes will have to look elsewhere.

The writer has a knack for finding logic in the seemingly illogical, and his very unique way of looking at things makes his voice distinctive and his work rivetingly interesting. For instance, while investigating how high a human can throw something, he measures height in “units of giraffes”, and when discussing genetics, he uses the Dungeons & Dragons “d20” system of character stats to represent a strand of DNA. The occasional pop culture references and allusions to Lord of the Rings and Star Wars will also please his target audience.

Both entertaining and informative, What If? makes you fall in love with science, but it might also leave you wishing that you’d paid a little more attention in school, because while Munroe does a good job explaining things in a simple manner so that the content can be easily comprehended by a layperson, you still need a basic understanding of fundamental science and math to really enjoy the book.

Munroe reminds us that science can be fun and encourages us to embrace the geek in all of us. If you have ever found yourself wondering about anything seemingly absurd — like what would happen if you tried to make a periodic table out of bricks of the actual elements, or if your DNA suddenly vanished, or if a Richter scale magnitude 15 earthquake hits a city — then What If? is the perfect book for you. (And if you’re looking for ways to destroy the world then What If? will serve as a handy manual.) Ultimately, the book will leave you armed with lots of awesome science trivia so that you can impress your nerdy friends and bewilder all the non-geeks around you.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions


By Randall Munroe

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, USA

ISBN 978-0544272996