What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – Randall Monroe: A Review

Date finished: 26th September 2015

Anyone familiar with web-comics may have come across a web-comic called Cyanide and Happiness during their internet travels.

There’s one particular Cyanide and Happiness comic which this book brings to mind. Specifically this one:


It makes a pretty good point. The reason it puts me in mind of ‘What If?’, as well as the XKCD series in general (from which the book has grown), is that it walks that fine line of love and lust for science.

Certainly, this book is an orgy of ludicrous imagination, geeky jokes, and science that should never, ever, under any circumstances, be practiced. It’s lust for the sort of experimental insanity undertaken by known, fictional, mad scientists like Dr Frankenstein, Professor Farnsworth, and Rick Sanchez.

But Randall Monroe’s no idiot web-cartoonist (not that I’m accusing any web-cartoonists of being idiots). After all, he used to work for NASA designing robots, then he gave it up to write web-comics – presumably because he either felt more fulfilled that way or maybe it paid more. The point is, he’s a very intelligent man who clearly knows his subject matter inside and out.

Occasionally he’ll hint at what lengths he had to go to in order to find data or work out the effects of a seemingly innocuous part of an answer. In a question about live-printing Wikipedia as its edited, he remarks that he’s having trouble resisting the urge to come up with a potential filing system for such a project.

What I’m trying to say is: Randall Munroe loves science. And it’s his overwhelming passion for his subject that really makes this book so captivating. The questions are hilariously strange and relentlessly intriguing – a monument to the imagination of XKCD readers – they alone are worth the price of admission, and it’d be easy for Munroe to give some satisfying, funny answers. But in the end it’s the sense of dedication he exudes that really makes the material come together. He writes out equations most readers can’t possibly fathom, and simplifies vastly complicated academic concepts into easy-to-digest metaphors. He makes science fun. And it’s not just the parts that were already sexy like the thermonuclear explosions, it’s the reasons behind those thermonuclear explosions too – the equations, the atomic pressures, the quantum theories. It’s all laid bare and in such a way that even a 10 year old could understand.

This book is how science should be written. It doesn’t feel a need to be stuffy and serious, or to overcomplicate matters. It has a great sense of fun, it makes jokes, but it also goes into all the detail it needs to and explains the real, gritty science in a concise and engaging way.

Someone who lusted after science would tell you that, if you throw a baseball at 90% the speed of light, you will cause a thermonuclear explosion. Munroe tells you why that thermonuclear explosion takes place, going into nanosecond-by-nanosecond detail of all the reactions taking place that cause this. It’s absurd, it’s hilarious but, above all, it’s fascinating. This book loves science, and so will anyone who reads it.


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