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Onyx reviews: What If? by Randall Munroe

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 09/27/2014

A reader comes away from Randall Munroe's book, which is subtitled "Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions," with the sense that Munroe likes to blow things up and burn them to the ground, and that may well be the case. Many of his answers are accompanied by the standard disclaimer—do not try this at home—except when says, "If you do do this at home, please send me the video."

Munroe is a former robotics expert with NASA who "dropped out" to draw web comics. His most famous creation is xkcd, where three times a week he publishes a new comic, many of them presenting a fascinating—or ludicrous—take on math, physics, technology or life. His drawing style is at once simplistic and instantly recognizable. His people are stick figures, but that doesn't diminish their cleverness. This book is illustrated with similar drawings, often to provide the punch lines to jokes delivered in the text or to demonstrate a point.

Since he's obviously very clever and resourceful, and seems willing to tackle enormous questions, his readers and fans often ask him questions. Some of these are, quite frankly, disturbing. These he relegates to interludes between batches of chapters with the appropriate heading "Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox." Usually he answers these questions with a simple NO! or a scream, or a comic of the author reporting the questioner to the police, the FBI or Homeland Security. 

The other questions are of the sort that college kids might come up with late at night in dorm rooms or geeks would get into heated arguments over at ComicCon. No one asks Munroe who would win in a fight between this superhero and that one, but maybe he's keeping those for the follow-up. 

Many questions are about a matter of scale. How many of these objects would you need to do that? What would happen if something this big suddenly showed up or plummeted to the earth? A disturbingly large number of them ask what would happen to a person if something cataclysmic happened, like the sudden disappearance of all of their DNA (his answer unexpectedly segues into the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer). 

Some questions have straightforward, simple answers. "What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly turned off?" Everyone would freeze to death. However, Munroe is rarely content to stop there. He expands on these answers, taking them to a logical (or, some might say, illogical) extreme. He ups the ante, going far beyond what the person submitting the question had in mind—far beyond what is even remotely possible, so the answers become thought experiments. Many of his answers end with the extinguishing of life on earth or the destruction of the planet. 

But there's a method to his madness. He isn't just speculating. Okay, he does occasionally speculate, but he usually relies on hard science, with a few assumptions. While the book is entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny, it is also educational. There are very few formulas (the book does have an extensive bibliography where there are, no doubt, more than enough equations to satisfy those who demand more rigorous proofs), and Munroe takes some numerical shortcuts, but one is left with the impression that he has given these questions a great deal of thought and conducted considerable research.

This would be a terrific book to give to someone with a burgeoning curiosity about the nature of things, as it demonstrates how entertaining science can be. Many of the answers are astonishing and counterintuitive, until Munroe lays out the reasoning behind them. What would happen to a glass of water if the lower half of the liquid were suddenly replaced by a vacuum. Not at all what a person might anticipate. If humanity were to die off (there he goes again), what would be the last remaining manmade source of light? Again, he digs deep, pursuing some unexpected avenues.

Plus, for people who appreciate Munroe's unique, twisted sense of humor, the book is drop dead funny. But, as humorist Dave Barry often says, don't try to duplicate his experiments at home. By his own admission, he is not an expert on these subjects. Because he is willing to consult true experts, he just sounds like one.

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