Book review, Randall Munrow, What If? - Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions


Book review
Randall Munroe,
What If? - Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover, 2014, 304 pages

Describing himself as "a sort of Dear Abby for mad scientists", the author has received and answered science questions. He draws stick figure comics to accompany his answers.

The charming feature is that the questions selected for this volume are not the sort of questions that I would have considered, nor would I have imagined that anyone else would have ever considered them. And yet, once having read the question, I can't wait to find out how real science answers them.

"What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?" [page 7] "If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?" [page 27] "If two immortal peole were placed on opposite sides of an uninhabited Earthlike planet, how long would it take them to find each other?" [183] "What is the longest possible sunset you can experience by driving, assuming we are obeying the speed limit, and driving on paved roads?" [228]

Previously I would have thought that the typicality of a question would be connected to the informativeness of the answer, but now I realize that learned that nothing is lost by answering a unique and weird question. This assumes that the reader is of the opinion that expanding one's mind, for the sake of doing just that, is enjoyable.

The last thing I expected was this. The author ends with a five-page table ofacknowledgements, where such sources as publications by NASA and the Federal Reserve are cited as justifications for the answers to the questions. The authentically scientific has been applied to achieving this entertaining product.

There is no lesson conveyed, not the history of scientific discoveries, nor even an allegory about the orderliness and oneness of the cosmos. It is just a series of weird questions and genuine answers to them.

MY favorite article was about what would happen if you were standing in Times Square, New York, and began travelling backwards in time. We go back, back through the ice age, back through the formation of the contenent, and back further. What about if we travel forward in time? We move forward in time at least to the point where the sun has burned out, and there is really no point in going ahead beyond that. [pages 15-22]

The book is arranged into about 70 mini-chapters.

Other than deriving pleasure from speculating and learning, I cannot say why the author would have written this particular book, rather than something else.

The author has his degree in physics from Christopher Newport University in Virginia, and he has worked on several government projects.

This book has also been reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, on National Public Radio, and by other major media.

Question: Was it on the New York Times Bestsellers List? Answer: No.

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