Monday, September 26, 2016

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions - Randall Munroe

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsSo, What If? was my choice for a satire book for my 2016 reading challenge.  In it, Randall Munroe, the author of the webcomic xkcd answers email questions he's received that are absolutely ridiculous, but he answers them in a serious manner.  I think the best, easy example of this is the often-asked question, "What would happen if the sun turned off?"  In answer, Munroe lists a lot of "pros" to the sun going out, such a reduced risk of solar flares, improved satellite service, being able to drive across asphalt laid directly on ice instead of needing to build bridges, and safer parsnip consumption.  And then he follows it up with the downside to the scenario: we would all freeze and die.  Other types of crazy questions include...

-What would happen if all the rain in a rainstorm fell as one massive droplet?
-How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic London to New York?
-How quickly would the oceans drain if a circular portal 10  meters in radius leading into space were created at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, and how would the world change as the water was being drained?

These are accompanied by the actual science--though sometimes stretched in crazy ways--which is really well explained for those of us who are not physicists, and also by the stick figure comics that Munroe has become internet-famous for.  His type of humor really agrees with me (when I understand it; the webcomic's page contains a warning that states "This comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)," and I am a liberal-arts major) so I thought I would like the book quite a bit.  And I did...

...but.  Here's the thing.  Munroe also runs a What If? blog, and most of the content of the book comes from there.  There are a few new things in the book version, but just a few, and most of the "new things" are questions that came in that Munroe finds especially weird and worrying but doesn't answer in full as he does the other ones.  If you've read the What If? blog, then there's not a ton of new stuff here to enjoy.  The blog is also set up better for Munroe's style than the book is.  xkcd and consequently What If? are known for the alt-text that Munroe uses, which is the text that appears when you hover your mouse over an image, and serves as a sort of caption.  Pretty much all of the comics that Munroe inserts into the What If? answers online include an alt-text, but only a few of them are included as captions in the book.  He also uses footnotes in a funny way on the blog, but when you read the book, either in hard copy or on Kindle, they're not as accessible; on the blog, you click the footnote and the note actually just pops up where you are, without directing you to the end of the article.  In the book, you have to go to the end of the article to read the notes, which are typically funny and not actually citations, and are things you want to read as you along rather than at the end, and that makes for a lot of flipping back and forth.

Munroe's typical wit and style are evident here, and I wasn't disappointed by that at all.  Still, I think this book is best suited for people who aren't familiar with xkcd and What If? in their internet forms; if you're already a fan, I think you're better off just sticking to the website.

3 stars out of 5.

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