What If?, by Randall Munroe

What If

Randall Munroe writes the xkcd web comic, which is illustrated with stick figures. It’s vaguely familiar, like I’ve probably come across it once or twice, but for the most part I did not know of it before reading What If? What If? is a (very strange) science trivia book of sorts. I thought, then, that xkcd might be along the same lines, but I looked it up after reading the book and glanced through 20 or 30 strips and it appears to be much more miscellaneous. Kind of like The Far Side, just whatever oddball funny stuff is on Munroe’s mind.

The format of What If? is question-and-answer, with the questions being hypothetical, and highly fanciful, science questions Munroe has received over the years from readers of his website. Like, “If you suddenly began rising steadily at 1 foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first? Or something else?” or “If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn’t the common cold be wiped out?” (The answers, by the way, are, for the first: It depends on things like how bundled up you are, but in most cases you’d freeze to death—and, for the second: Almost, but the virus would survive considerably longer than a couple of weeks in a tiny minority of people with weakened immune systems, and from them it could then reestablish itself in the general population when people resume their normal lives.)

So obviously it’s not realistic type stuff. I mean, there’s no particular mechanism by which someone would suddenly rise 1 foot per second until they were dead, nor are there any plans to somehow isolate every single person in the world for two weeks.

But they aren’t thereby pointless questions. Besides being funny (which is itself of value), they’re valuable in the same way that any kind of “story problem” can be valuable. You don’t do problems in 3rd grade about hypothetical people dividing up apples so that you’ll be prepared the next time you’re called upon to divide up apples (though it could indeed help you if that exact scenario did happen to arise), but in order to learn the underlying concepts of fractions or division or whatever.

In order to answer questions like in this book, you have to research and learn (or, as a reader, learn from what he researched) things like how temperature and air pressure change at different elevations and how that affects the human body. Or how viruses are transmitted and how long they can survive if they’re stuck in a single person with no one else to spread to. And those are not silly, unrealistic matters, but things that are significant and useful in real life.

I mean, I don’t want to push this point too far, because I don’t want to give the impression that this is an educational book with a thin veneer of fun, like something whose main purpose is to trick kids into learning science, but one of the things that kept coming up in my mind while reading this is that these kinds of questions really could be useful in an educational setting. I think the book itself is mostly for fun with the educational benefit being more incidental (whereas I can only imagine how a committee of professional educators would eliminate 90% of the fun by aiming much more directly at the educational benefit), but in the hands of the right clever teacher it’s an approach that could be quite effective with many students.

What If? is one of the more purely enjoyable, easy books I’ve read in memory. It’s a medium-length book, but I could see reading it at one sitting. It’s not taxing at all, and the content and the style keep it consistently interesting where you always want to read one more question and answer before stopping.

Munroe’s humor in What If? clicks with me. Interestingly, when I later looked up xkcd and read a few dozen strips, I found that less consistently funny. I liked his humor in the strips maybe 75% as much as his humor in the book.

The little stick figure drawings and captions are almost always right on the money. A lot of it is self-deprecating humor about the very fact that he and his readers would care about stuff like this.

It’s often disarmingly simplistic. Like, for whatever reason one of the ones I found the funniest is in reference to his doing some online research involving something like—I don’t have it in front of me right now—estimating the height of something in a scene from Star Wars by timing how long it takes for something that falls from it to hit the ground. The drawing is of a male stick figure holding a stop watch and looking at his monitor—presumably showing a YouTube clip from Star Wars—and there’s a female stick figure who has just come up behind him looking at him uncertainly and saying “What are you doing?”

It’s kind of like The Big Bang Theory humor, I suppose, contrasting the way certain sorts of conversations and activities would engage science nerds with how regular folks would see them as absurd things to spend any time or brain cells on.

Periodically Munroe interjects a page of questions he did not opt to answer, which he titles “Weird (and Worrying Questions) from the What If? Inbox.” Like, “How fast would a human have to run in order to be cut in half at the bellybutton by a cheese-cutting wire?” (This is illustrated by a stick figure looking at his monitor—presumably him reading this question online—and screaming “AAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!”) You would think the questions he does answer are about as weird as they could be, but I guess not. Or maybe the rejects are just weird in a more disturbing way.

There are a few places where the humor does not connect with me, and that’s when I don’t get the references, which is typically a generational thing, or a nerd thing. You know, like maybe it makes perfect sense and is funny if you’re familiar with some super popular video game that everyone plays on their phones, but it’s a game that someone like me would have never come across. So it’s not a matter of the joke being weak, but of my not being the right audience for it.

The majority of the time I do get the humor though, and in almost all those cases I like it. For example, one of my favorite recurring gags only makes sense if you’re familiar with Wikipedia. Periodically, at the end of a declarative sentence or clause he’ll add “[citation needed]” in superscript. But it’s always for the most mundane possible claims, like things only the most annoyingly anal and insane Wikipedia editor would insist need to be sourced.

For example, from the question about isolating everyone in order to eliminate the common cold, “A global quarantine brings us to another question: How far apart can we actually get from one another? The world is big,[citation needed] but there are a lot of people.[citation needed]

I also like when he helpfully points out that certain drawings—like of the Earth—are “not actual size.”

Alas, the overwhelming majority of the specifics in this book I’m unlikely to retain very long at all (which is the problem I have with trivia books and such in general). Like, if you were to read me one of the questions a month after I read the book, my guess is that there would be something like a 20% chance I could remember the answer. And after a year it would probably be less than 5%.

On the other hand, I suspect those percentages would be even lower for other science or trivia books. What If? is so interesting and funny that I felt like my brain was more engaged than usual reading it, so maybe the information sank in just a little better than usual.

Did you ever wonder which would be brighter (in terms of the amount of energy delivered to your retina): A supernova seen from the distance the sun is from the Earth, or a hydrogen bomb pressed against your eyeball and detonated? (The answer is that the supernova from that distance would be equal in brightness to more like a billion such hydrogen bombs. Supernovas, in other words, are quite bright.)

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