3 December, 2022

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

What If?:  Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If
Randall Munroe
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release Date:  September 2, 2014
ISBN 978-0-544-27299-6

The best thing about a book like What If? is that you don’t have to read it front to back – unless you want to.  You can peck at it, skim through it, take huge chunks out of it, bounce around in it, read a bit then set it aside then come back to it… there’s no right or wrong way to take a book like this.

Add to the mix that this book is just plain fun – and I mean laugh out loud fun – along with all the serious science going on.  And what else would you expect?  Author Randall Munroe was a roboticist for NASA at the Langley Research Center (NASA’s oldest field center) before leaving science for – webcomics.  As creator of the wildly popular webcomic xkcd, he now has reached cult worship status for those who follow pop culture.  (For those who may not know of xkcd, think of very astute, scientifically/technology savvy and extremely funny stick figures.)


This book grew from a project he started on his blog, where he asked visitors to submit their strangest questions and he would answer them with all the gravitas and thoroughness of a scientific researcher – but using humor and xkcd illustrations to get the point across.  A slew of the question submitted made it into this book, such as “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?” and “How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?”  Each answer is handled in a deliriously happy but absolutely serious way, with so much science – serious science, regardless of the absurdity of the question – that it’s mind-blowing.  But in a fun way!  You don’t really have to understand the science to absolutely enjoy this book; the stick figures give you the gist of it (believe me – I was never that good with physics or chemistry, and I still was enthralled).  Like reading the book itself, however you want to approach it is fine – it’s all good.

Interspersed between the question and answer “chapters” are little interludes of “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox”, which generally go unanswered, except for perhaps a pithy comment or single panel illustration… after all, some things just do defy explanation.  They in and of themselves are quite entertaining.  What we silly humans can come up with!

My absolute favorite question/answer came early in the book:  What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?  After establishing that the answer would be “a lot of things”, none of which end well for the batter, Munroe breaks down what actually would happen nano-second by nano-second, from the ball smacking into the atoms of the air molecules and which then fuse into the atoms of the ball’s surface thus releasing a burst of gamma rays and scattered particles, to the triggering of fusion (multiple times!) and the ultimate disintegration of the pitcher, the batter, the backstop, the teams, the stands and the surrounding neighborhood.  But the thing that really made me bust out laughing was the final sentence:  “Major League Baseball Rule 6.08(b) suggests that in this situation, the batter would be considered ‘hit by pitch,’ and would be eligible to advance to first base.”


If you like science or technology, absurdity or humor, if you are at all curious and enjoy exploration, or know of anyone who is, then this would be a great book to have around.  It’s a guaranteed good time that you can take at your own pace.  And as many of us start casting about for holiday gift ideas, consider What If?:  Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – it truly is a good time, on every page.