Book Review: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

by Kyle Piper

Fans of Randall Munroe’s xkcd webcomic may know of his “What If” column, in which he draws on his background in NASA robotics, as well as a general enthusiasm for math and science, to address reader-submitted questions with his best shot at a thoroughly researched, accurate answer. Many of the questions and answers featured in the column, along with plenty of new ones, are collected in the book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. This concept may sound little dull at first glance, but the questions (coming from just about anyone with an internet connection) run the gamut of interesting and thought provoking, to completely bizarre, and Munroe’s answers to even the most out-there questions are always just as carefully crafted as the rest.

It also helps that most of the proposed scenarios result in comically extreme destruction; one entry asks what would happen if a rainstorm dropped all of its water in a single massive drop, and the short answer is the complete obliteration of everything within 20 to 30 kilometers.

If you’ve ever wondered what a mole (Avogadro’s number) of moles (burrowing mammals) would look like (hint: planet sized mole-ball), and you wanted an insanely detailed and specific explanation of the “how” and “why” involved, this book has you covered. You can also learn what would happen if a baseball reached 99% the speed of light, or if a portal to Mars opened at the bottom of Mariana’s Trench and drained most of the oceans. All of these examples result in some kind of horrible mess, but even the more mundane questions, such as “When, if ever, did the sun actually stop setting on the British Empire?” are given remarkably well thought-out answers, and the author ensures that none of them are boring to read.

Randall Munroe has made a living out of finding humor in things like math and engineering though his webcomic, and that experience takes center-stage in this book. Thanks to the absurdity of its subject matter and its author’s wit, What If? is a ton of fun to read, and absolutely worth picking up a copy of.

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