A review by Rebecca Muir
The subtitle of What If? is “Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions”. I take it that by “serious” Randall Munroe means he is doing serious science, rather than fake science because “serious” would not be the adjective that comes to mind for this book! Funny, quirky and a little crazy would fit better.
Randall Munroe is the creator of xkcd.com, where he publishes a popular webcomic. He has a degree in physics and worked for NASA designing robots until he left to draw comics full time. His website has become a place to answer questions people pose (like what would happen if you took a swim in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool?) by using real maths and science. He has now compiled some of those answers, and some new ones, into this book.
The result is a funny and quite informative book about the sort of things you may (or may not) have been idly curious about. Randall Munroe has done a great job on a number of levels. He has obviously done a lot of hard work to think through the question and research the answer, coming up with something based on genuine science. He explains these answers in layman’s terms, though: you don’t need a physics degree to understand them. He uses humour to great effect. He has used his trademark stick figure comics to explain concepts and to make you laugh.
Dispersed throughout the book are sections titled “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox”. These are questions which he doesn’t bother to answer but they do make you chuckle or shake your head.
To give you an idea of some of the questions the book covers, here are some of my favourites:
If we got everyone to point laser pointers at the moon at the same time – would it change colour? No, but if we could modify the 500 terrawatt UV laser used at the National Ignition Facility to fire continually, and make enough for everyone, we could blow up the moon.
How does the computing power of the entire world population compare with a modern day computer? Depending how you measure computing power, a computer is more powerful – and there are some interesting calculations on when the combined global electronic computing power passed the combined global human computing power.
How close would you have to be to a supernova to get a lethal dose of neutrino radiation? Just a bit further than Mars is from the Sun.
What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly switched off? Astronomy would be easier, satellites would experience less service disruptions and wild parsnips would no longer cause burns. However, we would all freeze and die.
What if? is a great book to give to the geek in your life (especially if they have a sense of humour), or to the person who loves to ponder hypothetical situations. A lot of work has obviously gone into it, and the result is a brilliant and funny book.
Format: paperback, 295 pages
Publisher: John Murray (Hachette UK)