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Review: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

What if

From the creator of the wildly popular webcomic xkcd, surprising answers to important questions you probably never thought to ask. 

Millions of people visit each week to read Randall Munroe’s iconic webcomic. His stick-figure drawings about science, technology, language, and love have an enormous, dedicated following, as do his deeply researched answers to his fans’ strangest questions. The queries he receives range from merely odd to downright diabolical: 

 What if I took a swim in a spent nuclear fuel pool? 

Could you build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns? 

What if a Richter 15 earthquake hit New York City? 

What would happen if someone’s DNA vanished? 

In pursuit of answers, he cheerfully runs computer simulations, digs through declassified military research memos, consults with nuclear reactor operators, times scenes from Star Wars with a stopwatch, calls his mother, and Googles some really freaky-looking animals. His responses are comic gems, accurately and entertainingly explaining everything from your odds of meeting your soul mate to the many horrible ways you could die while building a periodic table out of all the actual elements. 

When Randall Munroe is your guide, science gets really weird really fast. Near-light-speed baseball pitches can level entire city blocks. A mole of moles can suffocate the planet in a blanket of meat. Yoda can use the Force to recharge his electric-model Smart Car. 

This book features the most popular answers from the xkcd’s What If? blog, but many of the questions (51 percent!) are new and answered here for the first time. What If? is an informative feast for xkcd fans and anyone who loves to ponder the hypothetical. 

In addition to reading copious amounts of fiction, I’m quite a fan of non-fiction books as well – depending on the topic. Most of the non-fiction I read (actually, all the non-fiction I read) is science-related. Combine that with the fact that the only webcomic I read is XKCD, which is really the best thing on the Internet (besides a certain blog run by yours truly), and I was quite excited to find out that XKCD creator Randall Munroe was publishing a book.

XKCD’s What if? feature has been running for a couple of years now, and in that time it’s answered some truly odd questions. What If? is no different. It covers everything from global windstorms to Twitter to how well an arrow would fly in zero gravity. The answers are delightfully informative and, often, surprising. Munroe writes with his usual wit, making the articles as funny as they are knowledgeable.

I’d be the first to admit I’m not physics- or math-oriented at all, and a physics-major friend of mine can attest to that, but despite that I had no trouble understanding the science in What If?. It’s no more complex than what you’d get in a typical XKCD comic, making it accessible to readers of all types. As a former roboticist for NASA, Munroe knows his stuff, and it shows in the text; that he can make his explanations so understandable shows how well he understands what he’s talking about. His enthusiasm for all things scientific shines through in the writing to draw the reader in and hold their interest, making for a truly enjoyable read. Interspersed through the articles are sections entitled, “Weird and Worrying Questions from the What If? Inbox”, which covers exactly what you’d expect: the oddest questions he’s ever been asked, which he doesn’t answer but instead responds to with humorous asides. These provide a nice little break from the articles themselves to stop the reader getting bombarded with too much science at a time. Within the articles themselves are relevant, yet funny short comics drawn in the style of XKCD to add humour to the articles, further adding to the enjoyment.

What If? is a great read for anyone, scientifically-oriented or not, and will especially appeal to those who like odd, esoteric, or just plain crazy knowledge.

Overall rating: 5/5

Aramone is someone who thinks a bit too much about the books she reads, to the point where she can probably give you a detailed break down of all the characters in any novel and how their past, personality and experiences lead to the conclusion of the story, and who writes books for fun. She's a third year in university and as a result has no free time anymore. ARamone owns two ferrets and intends to own more pets, and lives in Pickering, ON.

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