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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
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
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