What is the weirdest question you’ve ever been asked? Chances are, it’s nowhere as weird as the questions one finds in the best-selling nonfiction book “What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions” by Randall Munroe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2014, 303 pages).
Munroe himself could easily be the subject of an interesting book. The holder of a physics degree, the 30-year-old Munroe worked as a robots consultant for Nasa (yes, that Nasa) before becoming the very successful creator of the webcomic “xkcd,” which finds humor and insight in science by using stick figures. It was on xkcd that Munroe began accepting absurd questions and began answering them with a combination of text and stick figures. Those queries and responses became the bases for “What If?,” becoming a kooky High-IQ Q and A in the process.
What Munroe does is take real questions he received via e-mail and attempts to answer them with scientific basis and mathematical process (he’s really good at both). What kind of questions? The most common question he’s asked is what happens if the sun goes out. Munroe explains the possible beneficial effects of such an event (no solar flares) before simply saying, “We would all freeze and die.”
In fact, a lot of the questions asked in “What If?” are answered with the likelihood that humanity would be wiped out and/or the planet Earth would be destroyed. Munroe answers each question with clear, measured answers with just a little bit of irony. There are a few questions here that readers probably have asked themselves, like what would happen if everyone on Earth got closer together and jumped at the same time (nothing).
Munroe is pretty forthcoming about the premise for the book: “Do not try any of this at home. The author of this book is an Internet cartoonist, not a health or safety expert. He likes it when things catch fire and explode, which means he does not have your best interests in mind.”
Along the way, we learn other interesting things: That no matter how hard we try, we would literally never run out of things to say on Twitter. That either in the 2060s or the 2130s (it depends on your logic), the number of dead people on Facebook will outnumber the living ones. That lightning, in fact, does strike the same place twice, especially if it’s in Venezuela.
If those questions aren’t weird enough, Munroe periodically presents the questions that even he found too weird to answer in “Weird (and Worrying) Questions From the What If? Inbox.”
The best part of “What If?” involves trying to build a physical periodic table of elements with each cube actually made from the element. Aside from the sheer imagination it takes to ponder that, Munroe explains that the first two rows would be okay, the third row of elements would burn you. The next three rows would horribly kill you in various ways. As for the seventh and final row: “Do not build the seventh row,” he warns adamantly.
Stranger than fiction
The great part of “What If?” is how Munroe arrives at his answers. When the answer isn’t interesting or thorough enough, he expands the answer to cover all the bases. The way the book is arranged allows readers to read one question at a time. You can even skip the questions you don’t like. But all the answers are amazing and the stick figure illustrations are really funny. All this contributes to the truth that sometimes science fact is stranger than science fiction. Fact: Munroe is so popular (he has millions of readers), an asteroid (4942 Munroe) was named after him.
Over the last two decades, there have been books that have succeeded in bringing the intimidating worlds of science and numbers closer to both the interested and the uninitiated reader, with the work of Malcolm Gladwell, Oliver Sacks and Richard Dawkins being prime examples. Add Randall Munroe to that list, as his “What If?” works as a great portal to hardcore science for both the serious science fan the random Millennial. There are stupid questions, he admit, adding: “But it turns out that trying to thoroughly answer a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places.”
Available in paperback from National Book Store.