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