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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The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells – A Book Review.

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I am falling behind in my 1 book a week aim which is a shame. I seem to spend a lot of my days doing jigsaw puzzles, and then as I feel going outside once in a while is healthy, and interacting with real people is necessary, I seem to have used up all my anti-social time. It took far longer than it should have for me to come up with the idea of listening to audiobooks while puzzling. I thoroughly recommend it.

I have managed to read a few books lately though I haven’t posted any reviews in a while as I haven’t had much to say about them. However having recently finished listening to The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, and finding it very different to my expectations, I have decided to recommence the reviews. I have had the audiobook version of The Invisible Man for several years, but haven’t got around to listening to it; the avid readers among you will no doubt understand the nature of a ‘To Be Read’ pile, it works the same with audio books, I seem to gather them faster than I listen to them.

How Out of Control Is Your TBR Pile

The Invisible Man (1897) is one of the most famous sci-fi novels ever. It was written by H. G. wells and has innumerable films, TV series and comics based on it. Wells is also known for The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau which also have various media adaptations. Before listening to the book, this was pretty much all I knew. I had heard of the invisible man in the world of comics and superheroes and I vaguely remembered a film adaptation of The Time Machine that was a fun family friendly adventure. Consequently I was expecting something along those lines with this book; some of you will know that’s not what I got.

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I listened to a free audiobook version of The Invisible Man downloaded from Librivox (link here). The narrator (Alex Foster) was fine; I have no criticisms. I have experienced audiobooks that were hugely enhanced by a great reading, this wasn’t one of them, but on the other hand he certainly didn’t detract from the story, he was perfectly listenable, which isn’t always the case with the volunteer lead readings you find on Librivox.

I’m very well behaved when reading or watching sci-fi with respect to the science. I am willing to suspend logic and reality to an extent to allow the authors to create the new world, and in fact I enjoy the logic of the world they create and generally will allow it to stand without question. After all if science could actually do it, it would be reality not sci-fi. I reviewed Replay by Ken Grimwood and touched on The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North last year (link here). In Replay the science isn’t really attempted, and that’s OK, but I was highly impressed with the science element in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; I’ve yet to come across a better developed sci-fi world. In The Invisible Man Wells has also done a great job of explaining his scientific phenomena with a  reasonable explanation of how to make something invisible, in fact this was one of the most satisfying parts of the book from my point of view.

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Now to the story itself. As I alluded to earlier, The Inivisible Man is not a light fun adventure. It’s not even a slightly sinister or dark superhero book. It’s just dark and angry. The main character, the invisible man himself is called Griffin. When we are introduce to him he seems a rather harsh and grumpy however with my preconceptions I felt there would be reasonable justification for this later on. However as the book proceeds you are lead to like Griffin less and less. I clung on to the hope of a sort of redeemable anti-hero for a while but gave it up on that idea about half way through. Griffin is simply selfish, angry and brutish. You may think that is very well done by the author to build such a dislike about a character particularly when you are predisposed to like them, it must have taken very strong writing to create those emotions and I do agree to a certain extent. Griffin is a well developed character.

The main problem I had with the book is that non of the other characters in the book are particularly developed at all. There isn’t really anyone to like or root for. There is a tramp that is controlled by Griffin for a while. You would think you would feel some sort of support, or liking for the tramp but at most I felt a mild kind of pity. The tramp didn’t really have enough of a sense of character to really be noticed. Later Griffin holes up with an old acquaintance, Kemp, who when he realises Griffin’s brutality and unrelenting drive for complete domination, betrays Griffin to the Police. Griffin being angry at being betrayed and now hunted turns his anger on Kemp with the intent to kill. Even Kemp is hard to care about. I did support him in the sense that your enemy’s enemy is your friend, and Griffin was definitely an enemy by then, but there was very little emotion invoked on behalf of Kemp himself.

Overall I can’t say I liked the book, the writing style with a third person narrator I quite liked, the bits of science used to describe various phenomena were interesting, but without a likable, relate-able or redeemable character in sight it just felt like spending several hours in the company of and angry psychopath.

 

A Rant on Space Exploration

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link http://drawingsforjade.com/tag/stars/ – I really love this picture.

To become an astronaut seems to be the dream of many young children, I was never one of them. I don’t think it is a bad goal to have, if nothing else it encourage focus at school, specifically in the sciences which being a Geophysicist myself I am naturally biased towards. My issue is that I see actual space exploration as rather pointless, certainly the rockets side of things. I realise there will be many people who totally disagree and think the future is out there and we would be fools to not invest in that research now before it is too late. I think not, I think we have massively got our priorities wrong.

I’ve been pondering why we spend so much on space, what it is we are looking for, why it is important and I’ve come up with a few good reasons. The main reason that I feel is remotely valid is scientific discovery. Who knows what may be out there waiting for us. A new element or at least isotope. A new organism; life outside our planet, maybe even intelligent life. These would be truly useful discoveries. Other discoveries such as evidence of how the universe formed, or the history of a nearby planet I think are less practically useful as it is unlikely they could influence any future advancements but still would satisfy our human need to understand.

Against these I have the age old argument that there is still much we don’t know about our own planet. The Marianas Trench is the deepest place on our earth and there is still much we don’t know about the creatures that live down there. Our own magnetic field has never been fully understood, comparable to a bar magnet on the surface but with many more lobes when considered at depth. Our best technology and interpretations are rife with uncertainties and non-uniqueness problems. The idea that we will better understand the universe when in space verses when on our own planet is not one I find convincing. Copernicus, Kepler and many others since determined a huge amount about space simply by observing from earth, and I really don’t think anything discovered in space can rival their developments. Even the recent discovery of gravitational waves (predicted by Einstein) was discovered from earth.

Another idea that is often mentioned with space exploration is the idea that mankind will one day move from our own planet, into space or to another planet. Many people search space for planets in the ‘goldilocks zone’ (not to hot, not to cold) a planet able to sustain human life. A planet that can be terraformed into our own preferred environment. Finding a place for us to migrate to when our own planet cannot sustain us any longer. With increasing population and diminishing resources I can see why the idea of a nice new planet would appeal.

This is one of the most ridiculous arguments there is as far as I’m concerned. Firstly, when exactly are we expecting to need this, thousands or millions of years in the future, we’ve never bothered thinking that far ahead in terms of saving our own planet or resources. Look at the mess we’re making with energy, determined to invest money in extracting every last drop of non-renewable fuel we can with enhanced recovery, fracing and drilling trickier plays rather than putting more money into developing alternatives. Secondly the distances in space are so vast that reaching them would be highly unlikely, and the planet even still existing is questionable in the time it took for the planets signal to reach us who knows what could have happened to it. Kepler-186f is the closet best candidate for us and that is 490 light years away. Just in case you aren’t aware, that’s 490 times the distance light can travel in a year. It is a very long way and we can’t travel as fast as light. Pretty sure Newton had a theory about that. As a rough indication, the fastest any man has ever travelled is just under 7 miles per second and light travels at just over 186,282 miles per second. At our fastest speed it would take over 13 million years to reach! Call me closed minded, unimaginative or defeatist, but science is never going to overcome that obstacle.

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One of the great advantages of all the money that goes into space exploration is that often there are scientific advancements that can be trickled into other sectors. Of course if the focus had been on simply creating these advancements in the first place it likely would have been more efficient.

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In a nutshell that is my issue with space exploration. It’s nonsensical. I realise in the grand scheme of things the space exploration budget is not completely disproportionate and yet the time, effort and money to send even one person to space verses the reward, is something that boggles my mind. The only real reason I can see for this illogical endeavour is that we are an intrinsically competitive and curious species. We want to be the first, we want to be the best; we want to understand, to have seen, to have conquered. The race for the moon is a classic example, each was desperate to be first but when it was finally reached, there wasn’t really much there. Space is boring, the clue is in the name; it’s pretty much empty. Massive dark empty stretches of nothingness. I just don’t understand the fascination.

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Synaesthesia, Or The Crossing of Senses.

Most people would likely agree that we have 5 key senses. We see with our eyes, we hear with our ears, we smell with our nose, taste with our tongue and feel through touch. It seems straight forward enough, however for some of us, that’s not exactly what we experience. There is a neurological phenomenon called synaesthesia in which there is some confusion between senses. For example some people taste sounds, or see pain.

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Some of the better known types of synaesthesia are as follows:

Grapheme-colour synaesthesia – where individual letters, numbers or words induce the experience of a colour.

Chromesthesia – where sounds induce the experience of a colour

Spatial sequence synaesthesia – where numbers and sequences exist in space

Auditory-tactile synaesthesia – sounds induce a sensation associated with touch

Ordinal linguistic personification – sequences, such as numbers, week-day names, and alphabetical letters exist as personalities

Mirror-touch synesthesia – where observation of another person experiencing touch induces the same sensation in themselves

Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia – where sounds induce the sensation of taste

Spatio-temporal synaesthesia – where time is experienced as a spatial construct like a map of the year.

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There are other forms not mentioned, and in fact very little is known about most. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia is considered the most common, where as those forms related to taste and touch are considered rarer. What differentiates synaesthesia from mere association is the consistency and lack of thought that goes into it. You can ask someone years later what colour the letter H is and it will likely be exactly the same to them. It can’t be learnt, taught, or got rid of, it is simply the way some people brains are wired.

General consensus on synaesthesia is that it is not a handicap, and can in fact be very helpful specifically in memory related tasks. People with spatial sequence synaesthesia generally have great chronological memory. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia, or ordinal linguistic personification provide you with an extra idea you can latch on to remember things by. However in extreme cases people can struggle with sensory overload.

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There are some online tests you can do for some of the more common forms of synaesthesia but for greater reliability they need to be taken multiple times years apart. The one I have completed a few times is for grapheme-colour synaesthesia at synesthete.org. It gives you a full colour range to select the colour you experience for different letters and numbers, testing for consistency and speed; my results are below.

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I myself experience two main types of synaesthesia. One is grapheme-colour synaesthesia, generally considered the most common, and the other is ordinal linguistic personification which is less known about. I had no idea that this wasn’t how everybody experienced life until I was in my late teens. My mum and I could hold conversations about what colour certain letters or numbers were (it seems she has a mild form of synaesthesia also), or when naming cars or any object really rationalising the name by saying it was a red name or a blue name. My red and chrome MG BGT was called Archie for obvious reasons to my mind. It was only when I happened to catch a documentary about the phenomenon that I realised that it wasn’t the standard view of the world.

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When I say I experience things visually I mean for example that the number 4 is a pillar box red, I don’t associate it with red, I don’t mentally link it with red, it just is red, there is no thought that goes into it; it just is. Similarly other letters, numbers and words they have a different visual existence for me than their basic form.

The ordinal linguistic personification I experience most strongly with numbers. The number 6 is awful, like a black hole, controlling and evil, tainting and overpowering everything around it. The number 9 in contrast is like a slightly gloomy, geeky, teenage boy; tall and lanky with spots. The number 7 is my favourite, he’s like a loveable rogue, a con artist but only going after bad guys. They also have colours and this on the whole I find useful. In fact I memorised my bank card pin by colour and have a sense of whether a number is right or wrong by the colour I experience and whether it matches what I remember.

The only problems this has ever caused me is when certain object aren’t really the colour the I experience when thinking about them, or when letters and numbers are all together like post codes or number plates. For example the Olivine is a white word, however the mineral is green. The word Quartz is a black word however the mineral is white. When you’re studying geophysics and have to take exams on mineral properties this can get very confusing. I also get the number 4 and the letter A confused as they are exactly the same shade of red.

There is a novel I intend to read called A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass that follows the life of a 13 year old girl with synaesthesia. I believe it’s quite well known in America but harder to get hold of here in the UK.

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Almost Anyone Can Do Almost Anything If They Really Want To.

You can do it.

Almost anyone can do almost anything if they really want to.

I have held this fundamental belief for as long as I can remember. I genuinely feel that physics aside, if you put in the time and effort you can learn, achieve, or do anything at all. I’ve added in the clause about physics, because obviously at no point, no matter how much time effort you put in, are you ever going to fly like superman. Other than that, the trick is putting the effort in, where a lot of us fall down is in not doing so. In my mind I see it as a see saw. On one end you have the desire for the result, on the other the aversion to the work required; whichever one is greater will determine whether you succeed or fail.

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Sometimes you hear someone described as gifted, or a natural in a certain area. Someone is born to run, or they’re a gifted violinist, however I think that detracts massively from the work they put in. Maybe they have a head start, they are physically or mentally better adapted to a particular task but that is not the end. Continue reading

Odd Science – Is Aberdeen Home To The Ugliest People?

I have just picked up my copy of Quirkology by Richard Wiseman; It’s a book full of odd scientific ideas and experiments mostly in the realm of social science specifically the quirky side of human nature. In the introduction to the book Wiseman discusses a Victorian scientist called Sir Francis Galton who was one of the earliest known scientists to focus their studies in this area. Though he is better known as the father of Eugenics (think inherited traits), and advanced the field of statistics, he was also full of imaginative ideas and bizarre approaches, which is why I find him so interesting. His investigations included the level of boredom of his colleagues’ lectures, the effectiveness of prayer and the method of making the perfect cup of tea (achieved when ‘the water in the pot had remained between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, and had stood eight minutes on the leaves,’ apparently).

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The particular piece of Galton’s science I am going to look into today is his ‘Beauty Map’ of Britain, which in a way is related to his interest in eugenics as he believed beauty was inherited genetically. Continue reading

Schrödinger’s Cat, Randomness and Infinite Possibilities

 

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I expect many of us have heard of Schrödinger’s thought experiment concerning a cat, even if we don’t know exactly what it was about. At its most basic, the thought experiment consists of, to begin with a living cat, a radioactive source and poison linked to a radioactive detector, all encased in a box. If the radioactive detector detects any radiation the poison will be released and the cat will die. Continue reading