Sunday, February 15, 2015

Books – What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

What If? is a delightful book of amusing, crazy and sometimes scary questions folks have sent to the website of Internet cartoonist and former NASA scientist Randall Munroe. In the book’s introduction, Munroe confesses that he serves basically as a “Dear Abby to mad scientists.” Although the questions vary from wildly interesting to truly absurd, Munroe answers each one with scientific calculations, educated speculation, and an attempt to really determine what would happen if someone threw a baseball at the speed of light. Some of my favorite questions include: 
Q: What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant? 
Answer, pretty much nothing. The Earth’s crust is thick enough to take the impact with no damage. The surprise was in finding out that the entire Earth’s population, closely packed, could fit into the state of Rhode Island. The trouble would be in getting everyone home from Rhode Island—there would be a collapse of infrastructure and billions of deaths involved in the logistics of trying to get the entire population home from one central area. 
Q. If every human somehow simply disappeared from the face of the Earth, how long would it be before the last artificial light source would go out? 
A: An amazingly long time. The last culprits could be solar powered lights in remote areas or some of our worst nuclear waste encased in water. Both would last centuries. 
Q. Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns? 
Short Answer: Yes. 
Q: How much Force power can Yoda output? 
A: Turns out, Yoda demonstrated the most Force power of any character during all six Star Wars movies. Can you guess when it was? 
Q: How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York? 
A: Munroe does the actual calculations and tells how such a bridge would work, but basically, a lot.
There are many more hypothetical questions and scientific answers. Other subjects covered are lightning, speed bumps, draining the oceans, the sun going out, and guessing vs. knowing the answers on the SAT. What If? is an incredibly fun way to stretch your reality and look at everyday questions and practical science in a new, slightly skewed way.
Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars


  1. I saw this the other day at Joseph Beth and immediately added it to my wish list!

  2. For Yoda, I'm guessing the lift of the X-wing fighter out of the swamp. Probably the heaviest thing lifted in any of the movies.

  3. Mark, I think you'll like it Steve, you're absolutely right. I've never understood when Vader says, "The power to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force." Until Yoda lifted the X-Wing, they just used it to throw flashlights and the occasional box around. How is that more powerful than destroying a planet? At least Yoda generated some real power with it.

  4. My physics-learned father would tell you that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So when Yoda pushed on the X-wing, the X-wing (or the swamp actually) pushed right back. Then I would tell my father that he is unwise in the ways of the force and he would tell me to go rake the yard.

    I still remember eating a meatloaf dinner on TV trays and watching the Six Million Dollar Man. Col. Austin was lifting a van and my dad said without a bionic spine his back would snap in half. I loved when he poked holes in the story - because filling those holes in my mind became part of the story.