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Thursday, October 16, 2014

"What If?" Answers some of the most bizarre questions

I just finished reading this very amusing book named, "What if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions"

The author, Randall Munroe is a physicist who use to work at NASA as a roboticist. He created the webcomic xkcd , which features stick figures and deals with themes of science, technology and math.  Alongside this webcomic, he created whatif  where he answers questions sent to him by his readers.

The webcomic actually has a cult following and has already received over 70 million hits.[citation needed]  The book is a compilation of some of the more bizarre questions he's received and answered since he started the project.

This is the first time that I encountered Munroe and his work so I am pretty amused by his writing style.  He answers questions that if I or anyone asked a school teacher, I would be immediately dismissed as impertinent.  Consider the following questions:

  • What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?
  • How quickly would the oceans drain if a circular portal 10 meters in radius leading into space were created at the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean?
  • If someone's DNA suddenly vanished, how long would that person last?
  • How much physical space does the Internet take up?
  • What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly switched off?
  • If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

And my favorite: What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?    His answer: You can stack the top two rows without much trouble; The third row would burn you with fire; the fourth would kill you with toxic smoke; the fifth would do all of those and give you a mild dose of radiation; the sixth would explode violently and; Do not build the seventh row.  He gave a more detailed explanation of these answers in the same chapter.

All of these and the rest of the other main questions were answered meticulously by the author using both scientific fact and his brand of humor.  Yes, sometimes the reader needs a little background about the things he say but this won't stop you from enjoying the book.   Also, don't forget to read all the footnotes which were also as entertaining as the main texts. There's even a running joke about his constant use of [citation needed]. 

In between the questions are inserts called "Weird (and worrying) Questions From the What If? Inbox" and these contained even stranger questions (example: What is the total nutritional value of the average human body?) which Munroe answered with some funny stick figures or even deliberately left unanswered.

And one more thing, many of the questions and answers lead to scenarios of destruction of our home planet, which may be the reason why the author, after discussing the effect of the different magnitudes of an earthquake (Q. What if a Richter magnitude 15 earthquake were to hit America at, let's say, New York?),  ended his book with "Sometimes it's nice not to destroy the world for a change."

I really enjoyed reading this book.  I laughed and learned a lot while reading it. Even if it's your first time to encounter the author and his work, you will still find the book very interesting.  

What if? by Randall Munroe
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 303 pages
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