Genre: Nonfiction (Science)
Randall Munroe left NASA in 2005 to start up his hugely popular site XKCD ‘a web comic of romance, sarcasm, math and language’ which offers a witty take on the world of science and geeks. It’s had over a billion page hits to date. A year ago Munroe set up a new section – What If – where he tackles a series of impossible questions: If your cells suddenly lost the power to divide, how long would you survive? How dangerous is it, really, in a pool in a thunderstorm? If we hooked turbines to people exercising in gyms, how much power could we produce? What if everyone only had one soulmate? From what height would you need to drop a steak to ensure it was cooked by the time it reached the ground? What would happen if the moon went away? This book gathers together the best entries along with lots of new gems. From The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek and the songs of Tim Minchin, through chemistry, geography and physics, Munroe leaves no stone unturned in his quest for knowledge. And his answers are witty and memorable and studded with hilarious cartoons and infographics. Far more than a book for geeks, WHAT IF explains the laws of science in operation in a way that every intelligent reader will enjoy and feel the smarter for having read.
Ever had a discussion with your friends like say, if Batman and Iron Man got into a fight? Take that line of somewhat absurdest thought and turn it towards science and you have this book. Munroe is basically taking silly What If’s and giving them a critical eye. Some of my favorites include what would happen if you tried to build a literal periodic table with cubes of each element (in a word: don’t. not only will you die, but you’ll take your whole city down with you) or the unintended consequences if you gathered everyone in one spot to have everyone jump at the same time to see what happens. They’re fun theoretical (and generally impractical/implausible/impossible) situations to ponder and they’re written so that laypeople can understand what’s going on, though I’m sure those with more formal science training can take extra fun in wanting to argue with his stated theories. And for those really intrigued by what he says, there is a fantastic reference section at the back of the book listing articles he found during his research.
Really, this kind of book almost doesn’t need review – you enjoy XKCD or you don’t (and the humor between the comic and this book are pretty much the same) and you like these kinds of thought experiments or you don’t. But, if you aren’t sure because you’ve never read the comic or you think this might interest you, but you aren’t sure, check out What If? the blog feature that inspired the book – the book is very similar to this page, but on a grander scale. If you like one, you’ll like the other and vice versa.
My only critique here is one of formatting:
If you’re going to be reading this on a Kindle Paperwhite, I would strongly recommend getting a physical copy instead. On the Kindle, the formatting just doesn’t work. Borders of boxes are broken up over multiple pages, you have a graphic on one page and the caption on the next, there are pages that over a quarter blank and so on. It’s clear that this was not meant to be read on smaller screens. If you’re going to read this via electronic copy, your best experience is going to be on a full sized tablet. If you have a smaller tablet (think 7″ range) I’d suggest downloading a sample first and seeing what it looks like on your screen. While the book still is legible, I found it very distracting. I do love that on a Kindle you can have a footnote pop up on your screen without page flipping, but I think better formatting is worth not having that added accessibility.
Overall, this book is exactly what it states to be. If you like Munroe’s sense of humor and have a love of science and the absurd, pick it up, you’ll have a blast. Just don’t get it on a newer Kindle, your eyes will thank you.
Verdict: Buy It