Randall Munroe – What If?

My second whole-hearted 5★ read of the year comes from the irrepressible Randall Munroe of XKCD (my favourite stick figure strip – sorry OOTS). This book applies almost serious science to daft questions, although Munroe reserves the right to adapt both the question and the answer for scientific and comedic effect. Also, better stick (wo)man diagrams.

The book includes a selection of questions previously published online plus several new ones and is a delight from start to finish. It examines the often unexpected consequences of questions such as ‘what would happen if everyone on Earth jumped at the same time’, sometimes adding dimensions such as ‘in the same place’ (answer: not much to the Earth, but we’d inadvertently cause the apocalypse by crashing our infrastructure when we tried to go home) or ‘what would happen if we drained the seas through a hole at the bottom of the Challenger Deep?’ (answer: uh, water levels would drop and we’d do some damage to our climate. But if we put the other end of this magic water-draining portal on MARS we could terraform! Briefly).

This is as much about humour as about science, with the selection of theories and mathematics applied part of the geeky joy. However, you don’t need much (any?) science or maths to follow along and be amused – that’s the joy of stick figures. Randall has done the hard work in terms of research and calculation, and translates it gleefully and accessibly (who knew the US Government had an official line on the sensibility of firing a nuke at a hurricane?)

Highlights for me were his digs at Wikipedia – [citation needed] is applied to some of the most outrageously obvious statements (‘space is big’), whereas citations relating to his childhood exploits are sufficient for others (‘ships made of Lego can’t float’). Perhaps the most delightful moment in his search for citations was his realisation that if he wanted a technical breakdown of temperatures for cooked meat he should stop looking at scientific papers and just pick up his cookbook 🙂