I picked up this book not knowing too much about it, except that it looked quirky with some fun artwork and promised to teach me math and physics in an entertaining way. I didn’t know that the author, Randall Munroe, is the cartoonist behind xkcd.com, the delightful webcomic where stick figures rule and sarcasm explains science. Munroe actually studied physics in school and was a roboticist at NASA before becoming a cartoonist full-time. On his site, and in this book, he combines his passion for science with his keen sense of humor to explain the most absurd questions the internet can dream up.
In spite of my interest in science, I spent most of my high school and college years reading literature, so while I can hold my own in the Science and Nature category of Trivial Pursuit as long as I get biology questions, I’m pretty screwed when the subject is physics. As such, Munroe’s explanations on the physics-based questions still went over my head at times, in spite of the friendly stick figure drawings, but I count this as my own short-coming. Among the things I did learn from this book:
- High doses of radiation kill people by destroying the blood-brain barrier, causing cerebral hemorrhaging. (God, I love brain facts!)
- The sun still does not set on the British Empire, thanks to the Pitcairn Islands.
- You can’t drive a car over a speed bump fast enough that the impact will kill you, although if you tried, you’d lose control of the car and probably die anyway.
- We’d better hope that people don’t have soul mates, because if we did the chances of actually running into yours would be virtually nonexistent, meaning Hollywood has lied to me.
- It’s not really possible for rows of archers to shoot so many arrows into the air that they block out the sun, meaning Hollywood has lied to me again.
What I find most charming about this book is the level of commitment that Munroe puts into answering each ridiculous query. He uses the reader’s question as a jumping off point to spin into more and more outrageous/complex scenarios, indicating he will not be outdone by his readers when it comes to spinning absurd hypotheticals. I also love that his answers are full of qualifications and if/then type scenarios. In an age where thoughts are often limited to 140 characters, it’s refreshing that Munroe doesn’t believe in serving up sound bites or responding with one word answers. (The exception to this is the question, “In Thor, the main character is at one point spinning his hammer so fast that he creates a strong tornado. Would this be possible in real life?” The answer to that one is an unequivocal “No.”)
Certainly if you are a fan of xkcd, you will enjoy this book. And if you are science or math lover, you will also enjoy it. What if you’re more of a classical literature lover? Well, I’ll put it to a test. Here is sample of Munroe’s sense of humor from xkcd.com:
I may be a lit major, but that’s pretty damn funny to me. If you think so, too, give What if? a try. And remember not to try any of this at home.