What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Date Tue, May 2 2017

You’re probably familiar with XKCD, a surprisingly smart Webcomic that frequently touches on subjects such as science and math with humor. If you’re a fan of the comic, the subjects it touches on, the art style or perverting science in humorous ways, I’d like to introduce you to What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

This book is the work of XKCD creator Randall Munroe. What If? uses Munroe’s familiar art style, panels and all, the illustrate the scientific answers to absurd questions such as “What would happen if we inserted a funnel into Earth’s oceans and drained all the water to Mars?” or “Could you strap a bunch of guns aimed at the ground to your body to use as a rocket booster and achieve liftoff?”.

Now, I like science. But I’ve never been a huge fan of XKCD. I don’t know why. Perhaps I just prefer my science to come in the form of books or podcasts or TV series. It might be that the stick figure design doesn’t really do it for me. Or perhaps I just wasn’t exposed to the right XKCD panels to become a rabid fan like so many are. But that doesn’t matter. Because I love this book!

What If? gives Munroe the space to show his humor, not just in a few panels, but page after page. The text is broken up with comics to help illustrate, but it’s Munroe’s words that really pulled me in — and had me laughing out loud on a train full of people. Munroe also includes footnotes, typically hilarious and sometimes alarming, at the end of each answer section.

The following is a perfect example of how Munroe uses his humor, from the online home of What If?

Blue whales, which are even larger than humans,[citation needed] would presumably fare even worse.

You don’t need to be heavily invested in science to understand the answers in this book, either. What If? is a light read. I started it the night before leaving for a trip and completed it mostly on a train and airplane. Some of the questions are answered in just a few pages while others require a few more. This makes it the perfect book to read in waiting rooms and taxis in my opinion.

Munroe calls in experts to answer questions about space, radioactive materials, physics and more, so you trust the answers. But you can also tell when some of the answers might not be 100% accurate because we simply cannot replicate the experiment. Munroe will sometimes respond to the basic premise of a question, which doesn’t really work but expand on how it could work. This post is a great example of that. It’s a bit like Mythbusters, only entirely more ridiculous.

This is probably because all of the questions answered in What If? were submitted by Munroe’s readers. And he picked which to answer, publishing the name of the questioner and sometimes responding to them directly. Some of the questions made it into the book in mini sections that Munroe responded to with only comic panels — and sometimes single-word answers.

You can also read answers to more questions and see if you like Munroe’s style of answering them online. Check out What If? on the XKCD site. I’ll actually be going through the archives because I can’t get enough of this book.

If you’re already a fan, I recommend buying What If? directly (here’s the Amazon link), or seeing if your library has an e-book available, which is how I read What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

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