Science and Tech Features
Review: What If? Answers All Your (Literally) Burning Questions

Marla Desat | 9 Sep 2014 15:00
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What If Cover

Randall Munroe, creator of the web comic xkcd, takes on the internet's strangest questions in his latest book, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

If you've never followed the web comic xkcd by Randall Munroe, you're missing out an internet staple. For years, the black-and-white stick figure comics have been plastered on dorm walls, pinned to cubicles, and probably geocached somewhere. Billed as "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language," Monroe has tackled topics ranging from mapping the internet, illustrating the heights of the observable universe (on a log scale, of course), graphing the rise of the number of LEGO minifigs in the world to poignant commentary on life, love, grief, and loss.

A former NASA roboticist, Munroe often uses mathematics and science in his comic, and began answering some of the strange questions submitted by readers in his part comic, part essay blog What If? beginning in 2012. In the two years since launching the blog, Munroe has collected the best of his responses in his new book, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. In addition to old favorites, What If? includes nineteen never-before-seen essays and selected gems from the unanswered (or unanswerable) backlog of reader questions. Whether you want to know how many Yodas we'd need to power the Earth, or are just wondering how high you could float up before you'd die, What If? has the answers.

Munroe's approach to answering the unusual questions submitted by his readers is more than the "back of the envelope" calculations mathematicians or engineers might turn to in order get a handle on a problem, making simplifying assumptions and jotting the answers down on a scrap of paper or sticky note. He takes each absurd question to its logical, researched conclusion, calling in experts like organic chemist Derek Lowe and delving into Cold War era scientific publications. The essays would be more accurately called "back of the library" estimates for all the research Munroe puts into them. That alone makes the book a solid and fun exploration of science, but the big humor hits are all delivered when Munroe takes an absurd question through to its mathematically estimated, absurd conclusion, often at the prompting of a stick figure's curious question, "What if we tried more power?"

Take, for example, the question of the hair dryer. Reader Dry Paratroopa asked, "What would happen if a hair dryer with continuous power was turned on and put in an airtight 1x1x1 meter box?" You can read this essay in full on the What If? blog, but in short, all the power drawn by the hair dryer has to go somewhere, and so the box begins to heat up, eventually reaching an equilibrium with the air outside the box at about a temperature of 60 degrees C (140 degrees F). That answers the question, but Munroe is far from finished with this experiment. He assumes the hair dryer is indestructible, and cranks up the power delivered to it first by a factor of ten, then one hundred, and on until little but destruction remains in its path. A surprising number of Munroe's answers end in calamity, in fact.

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