Every now and again I get to read a non-fiction book which blows my socks off. Over the years the contenders have mostly been historical in nature — as is my particular bent — but this time, and completely unsurprisingly, things are a little different.
“What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions” is a book by Randall Munroe, most popularly known as the creator and author of the phenomenally popular “XKCD” webcomic.
And it lives up to its name.
The first question Munroe answers — with some authority, as a man who started life out as a NASA roboticist — is this:
What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?
It is not a question I had ever contemplated, nor do I imagine I will ever be able to put into practice the information I have gleaned from Munroe’s answer (which, in typical XKCD fashion, starts out simply saying: “Nearly everyone would die. Then things would get interesting.”).
However it’s damned fun!
The premise of the book is simple: Munroe’s XKCD website features a regular column in which the author answers ‘What If?’ questions. The best of these (as well as some of the more worrying — see below) are answered in detail in the book, along with Munroe’s beloved artwork — helping, illustrating, and laughing at some of his answers.
The questions answered range across the whole scientific spectrum, including my favourite:
What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?
The answer, inevitably, results in death, but the how and why is a fascinating learning experience.
And that’s the trick of why this book is so good. Yes, it’s hilariously terrifying at times (“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%)?” — as a note, Munroe doesn’t answer this question), and absurd (“How much force power can Yoda output?”), but in the end, the book is also really informative. Entire high school science curriculums should be built solely around Munroe’s method of education.
So the audience for this book is many and varied: If you’re into science, young and not into science, a parent of someone young and not into science, a parent, a fan of XKCD, a fan of weird scientific questions answered …
Now I come to think of it, I think it’d be good if Randall Munroe did a What If? about who his book doesn’t appeal to. The science would be fascinating.
Pick it up at your local Amazon (or wherever).