Tuesday, November 25, 2014

No Such Thing As Stupid Questions: What If? by Randall Munroe

“Do not try any of this at home. The author of this book is an Internet cartoonist, not a health or safety expert. He likes it when things catch fire or explode, which means he does not have your best interests in mind. The publisher and author disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects resulting, directly or indirectly, from information contained in this book.”
– Disclaimer, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What if everyone on earth jumped up and down at exactly the same time? No, seriously – what would really happen? What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at nearly the speed of light? What if you tried to build a periodic table of the elements out of the actual elements comprising it? I don’t know. Of course I don’t know. But I know who you can ask.

Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist and now full-time self-employed internet cartoonist, spends a great deal of time putting his well-honed scientific mind to work on the What If blog section of his wildly popular site, xkcd.com, where users submit strange hypothetical questions that he does his best to answer as scientifically as possible. Munroe has kept this blog active for so long that he has now collected enough material to fill a book – one that proves both insightful and hilarious to read.

What If’s hypotheticals are the kind of questions children ask (and many, it turns out, are submitted by children). I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense; the questions that spring forth from developing minds can be honest and probing in a way our biased adult psyches have forgotten. “From the mouths of babes”, etc. What I mean to say is that the questions selected for What If – from the mundane (“How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?”) to the utterly outlandish (“What if I jumped out of an airplane with tanks of helium and a huge balloon – how long of a fall would I need in order to inflate the balloon so it would allow me to land safely?”) – are imaginative, amusing, and genuinely thought-provoking. Munroe attacks them with the full force of his scientific acumen, applying logic where there shouldn’t be any and real-world consequences to entirely fantastical scenarios. (Turns out the balloon one is actually somewhat plausible.)

What If is amazingly accessible as well, and while it would be inaccurate to say that Munroe “dumbs down” the science, he omits technical detail wherever it would impede the layman’s understanding. What the reader is left with is a collection of entertaining speculative scenarios that succeed in actually teaching the fundamentals of some complex concepts from physics and chemistry. After reading the entry in which a user asked “If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like The Little Prince?”, I was inspired to dive into a Wikipedia wormhole about gravitation, tidal forces, and planetary orbits. (The answer, by the way, is technically yes, although you’d need to be able to jump high enough to dunk a basketball at regulation height in order to escape its gravitational pull.)

And of course, the comedy value of these questions can’t be overstated either. Whether Munroe is lightly poking fun at his readers’ more outlandish questions (my favourite being the answer to “What if you strapped C4 to a boomerang?” – “Aerodynamics aside, I’m curious what tactical advantage you’re expecting to gain by having the high explosive fly back at you if it misses the target.”) or modelling mathematical theorems by timing scenes from The Empire Strikes Back with a stopwatch, What If is consistently entertaining. Even well-known mass market scientific texts like Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos can cause the lay-reader’s eyes to glaze over occasionally, usually through the inclusion of equations that take up half a page. Munroe replaces these with his characteristic stick figure cartoons, offering levity where other authors might shove the boring stuff.

Some readers avoid nonfiction because to them, the real world can’t compare to fiction in terms of excitement or interest. Nonfiction fans will retort that the truth is often stranger and more fascinating than fiction. With What If, we get the best of both worlds. Inquiring minds of (nearly) any age will find something to love in Munroe’s collection, whether it’s his winking sense of humour or the special two-part satisfaction that comes with asking the crazy questions you always wanted the answer to, and actually getting a realistic, well-reasoned answer in return. Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge – but sometimes, it’s nice to indulge in our desire for both.

By the way, there is absolutely such a thing as a stupid question. But, as Munroe demonstrates, "thoroughly answer[ing] a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places."

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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