Review: “What If?” by Randall Munroe

I’ve just finished reading What If? by Randall Munroe, creator of the popular webcomic xkcd. This book is a compilation of essays from his website where people send him ridiculous hypothetical questions and he attempts to answer them with actual science and logic.
Examples of questions in the book include:

  • How many Legos would it take to build a bridge capable of supporting traffic from New York to London?
  • What would happen if you gathered a mole (unit of measurement) of moles (small furry creature) in one place?
  • What would happen if lightning struck a bullet in midair?
  • If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a few weeks, would the common cold be wiped out?
  • If a woman used her own stem cells to create sperm and impregnate herself, what would be her relationship to the baby?
  • and my personal favorite – If you dialed a random phone number and said “God bless you,” what are the odds that the person who answered the phone had just sneezed?*

This is a great book if you enjoy thinking about random science-y stuff, which I do. Also, an unsurprisingly large number of the answers culminate in the end of human civilization as we know it — there’s a sort of Mythbusters thing going on here where, on occasion, Munroe isn’t satisfied with just strictly answering the question, but then goes on to take the hypothetical situation to its logical extreme until he can get to the point where he’s blown up the Earth. ;)

This is also a great book for reading aloud to kids, although I did pick and choose a bit, as some of the selections involved science that’s just too advanced for my kids right now (ages 11 and 8). But they enjoyed it and took away some great little factoids with which to wow their friends (“Did you know that you could fit the entire human population into Rhode Island?”) and, more than that, I think it makes a really good introduction to the concept of the scientific method and how to approach questions logically. Even when the question itself is absurd, you can still apply the same principles of analytic thought, which I think is a great lesson to learn.

My personal favorite factoid from the book is that if an astronaut on the International Space Station were to listen to the song “I’m Gonna Be” by the Proclaimers (you know, “I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more…”) then in the time it takes to hear the whole 3.5 minutes of the song, the astronaut would have traveled almost exactly 1000 miles.

* Mind you, the answer to the sneezing question was a bit unsatisfying; he mostly talked about how researchers calculated the average number of times a person sneezes, and I wished he had gone more into the demographics of who might be answering the phone, whether they would understand English, whether they would be of a religion that considers that use of “god” appropriate, etc….

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