'What If?': A terrific combination of the ridiculous and real

Learning how science and the world work is rarely is as much fun as in this book from Randall Munroe, the creator of the XKCD comic. It's good for kids and adults.

What if you drained the world's oceans? Randall Munroe explores these and other questions in his book "What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions."
What if you drained the world's oceans? Randall Munroe explores these and other questions in his book "What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions." CNET

For anyone who grew up imagining that the floor was lava or wondering what would happen if gravity reversed, good news: Randall Munroe's new book -- "What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions" -- started arriving Tuesday.

Munroe rose to Internet fame with his XKCD Web comic then cemented it with What If?, which explores and explains the universe answering mostly impossible questions with real answers: What if the world's oceans drained away and were transported to Mars? How fast can you hit a speed bump and still live? What if the world's population got close together and jumped at the same time? Could you sequester the world's carbon dioxide in soda?

Munroe's exploration of these subjects is a delightful combination of the ridiculous and real.

Preorders alone pushed "What If?" to the No. 1 spot on Amazon's bestseller list, so it's no surprise online success has become an avenue for publishers seeking offline hits. Among others in Randall's company are Allie Brosh with "Hyperbole and a Half," Matthew Inman of "The Oatmeal," Justin Valmassoi with "Animals Talking in All Caps," and Justin Halpern with "S*** my Dad Says," which began as a Twitter account.

But Munroe, a 29-year-old former NASA roboticist, is the best yet. He's not just entertaining, he's instructive. Reading his book makes you smarter.

Munroe developed his stickman-centric line-drawing technique in his Web comic XKCD then brought it to his What If blog.
Munroe developed his stickman-centric line-drawing technique in his Web comic XKCD then brought it to his What If blog. CNET

"What If?" (published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) combines Munroe's broad scientific knowledge and enthusiasm with his humor and trademark stickman drawings. It's a fun, engaging, educational, and packed with a back-of-the-envelope calculations that can make scientific inquiry approachable. It's good for adults, but to write this review, I also had to pry "What If?" out of my 9-year-old son's hands several times.

It's lucid, too. Here's an example from a discussion about orbital mechanics: "Getting to space is easy. The problem is staying there. Gravity in low Earth orbit is almost as strong as gravity on the surface. The Space Station hasn't escaped Earth's gravity at all; it's experiencing about 90 percent the pull that we feel on the surface. To avoid falling back into the atmosphere, you have to go sideways really, really fast."

To find out whether you'll like the "What If?" book, you can read the online version. The book adds new material not published on the Web, though, so if you're a loyal fan you can expect fresh material. For example: "If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn't the common cold be wiped out?" Munroe didn't just copy and paste this book together.

"A pitcher with an 80mph fastball could [throw a ball the height of] ten giraffes," Munroe calculates.
"A pitcher with an 80mph fastball could [throw a ball the height of] ten giraffes," Munroe calculates. CNET

There also are updates to existing entries, such as the footnote added to the the first "What If" entry on relativistic baseball, in explores what would happen if a pitcher threw a ball at 90 percent the speed of light. "MIT physicist Hans Rinderknecht...found that early in the ball's flight, most of the air molecules were actually moving too quickly to cause fusion, and would pass right through the ball, heating it more slowly and uniformly than my original article described." Whew! Glad we got that cleared up!

The attention to detail is great. I can't remember the last time I actually pored over a dust jacket for 10 minutes or laughed at a legal disclaimer: "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."

It's a bit strange reading a paper version of "What If?" Munroe is one of those people who probably never could have made a living as a cartoonist in the days when newspapers were the way to distribute comics. I prefer reading raw text on paper than on a screen, as long as the lighting is good, but paper books are passive in a way: You can't copy and paste snippets to e-mail your friends, you can't bookmark pages for later reference, you can't search for particular tidbits, and most important, you can't click hyperlinks. The book still has endless entertaining digressive footnotes, but it's no longer a starting point for excursions into Wikipedia, academic papers, and the other source material Munroe uses online.

Munroe got his start online, but he's done a good job translating his blog into physical form.
Munroe got his start online, but he's done a good job translating his blog into physical form. CNET

This is less of a problem than you might think. My son asked me to define a mole in the chemical sense when reading about a mole of moles. But he withdrew the question because Munroe, a natural teacher, immediately supplied an explanation.

Still, there are limits. My son had to ask me what the Trinity test was (the first atomic bomb explosion) when reading about what would happen with an indestructible hair dryer running inside a box. And he couldn't follow the link to see a photo of a "truly horrifying" mole.

But that's a minor gripe in the scheme of things. And a physical book is better than websites when it comes to flipping around to find what's engaging. This is one blog that isn't a waste of shelf space.

Tags:
Tech Culture
About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Show Comments Hide Comments
Latest Galleries from CNET
10 mobile gadgets gone gonzo (pictures)
Apple in 2014: iPhone 6, iCloud hack, Beats and more (pictures)
The 12 most distinctive phones of 2014 (pictures)
Best mobile games of 2014
Nissan gives new Murano bold style (pictures)
Top great space moments in 2014 (pictures)