What If? By Randall Munroe – A Book Review

Serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions.

What If? is a book I had seen around and wanted for quite a long time, the times I’d seen it I was usually on a self-imposed book buying ban for one reason or another. Eventually I gave in and bought and I’m so glad I did. It comes from the creator of XKCD, a humorous science focused comic (there are some sketches below). It markets itself as answering absurd hypothetical question in a serious scientific way and it really does, the science seems sound and the questions are, as promised, ridiculous. But the best thing about this book is its sense of humour. It’s so easy for a science based book to be dry, particularly when it’s full of theory, but not this one. The captions, notes, measurements, images all raise a smile one way or another.

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If you’re not a scientist and are worried it will be over your head, I think you’ll cope. It’s written in a very accessible manner, explained in a way that anyone with a sense of logic, or passing familiarity with school level science will understand where the solutions are coming from. It’s not filled with numbers and formulas, but more with concepts, ideas and expansion of everyday occurrences, usually the explanations link to experiences the average reader will likely be familiar with. That being said, there were still occasional moments where I would read a sentence and need to read several times before any of the words made sense; ‘If a bullet with the density of a neutron star were fired from a handgun (ignoring the how) at the Earth’s surface, would the Earth be destroyed?’

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So what sort of questions are covered by What If? I won’t tell you everything that’s in the book, I’d hate to take away the element of surprise, but I’ll tell you a few of the questions answered:

·  How many humans would a rampaging T-Rex need to eat each day? The sort of question we all want to know the answer to

·  How much force power can Yoda output? Quantifying Sci-Fi for the sci-fi fans out there.

·  If you call a random phone number and say “God Bless you,” what are the chances that the person who answered just sneezed? I love statistics and the maths of randomness so this really appealed to me, and frankly the idea just made me laugh.

·   When (if ever) did the sun finally set on the British Empire? I definitely learnt something here, as a Brit myself this was highly interesting.

Some of the questions do have relevance, though you may struggle to believe me looking at the list above. Some relate to Facebook, data transfer, and computing capacity of humans verses computers. Over all it’s a fascinating collection of questions with equally intriguing answers. Such a wide range of ideas are covered that I frequently learnt new things, some may even come in useful one day, who knows.

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The arrangement of the book in to well defined questions and answers means you can just read the one’s that interest you – though frankly even the ones you wouldn’t naturally be interested in are still fascinating. It also means it’s easy to pick up and put down, it’s not really a binge read type book, I wouldn’t recommend trying to read it all straight, you can’t help but stop and ponder some of the ideas, you’d probably miss out if you didn’t take your time. I read it across a few weeks simultaneously with a fictional book and it worked well or me.

I mentioned the humour in the book, I don’t know why I was surprised by this as I have come across the XKCD comics before and so really should have expected a similar lightness to ‘What If?’ A piece of advice when reading this book, read the notes, read the captions, read every single word on every page as there is likely to be a nugget hiding, even the disclaimer at the start made me smile. Not all of the jokes are hidden, sometimes it’s open silliness. At one point Randall shows his working and final answer using distance measurements in units of giraffes just because he can. The cartoons throughout are also worth taking a proper look at, they have the classic XKCD style to them.

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Throughout the book, on most pages, are little numbered superscripts that direct you to a note at the bottom of the page, as any good scientific document would; If you read these you may find a relevant more heavily scientific piece of information, or instead some nonsense or ramblings from the author. For example on one page the text is as follows: ‘Nobody has ever lost all of the DNA,2’ If you check the note at the bottom of the page you would find the extremely useful information as follows: ‘2 I don’t have a citation for this, but I feel we would have heard about it.’

In between the questions answered are occasional pages of ‘Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox.’ All the questions answered had been submitted by the public, but amongst the ones chosen to be answered were many that were not chosen to be answered, looking at these little collections you can probably see why. Again it helps to keep the book light and manageable.

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So in Summary this book is great, I thoroughly recommend it. It is the most enjoyable science based non-fiction book I have ever read. If you like Randall Munroe, XKCD, science in any way, or just a touch of daftness then I reckon you’d like this book too.

If you want to check out some science based comics from XKCD, the website is http://xkcd.com/

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