Review by Virginia Tressider
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
By Randall Munroe
There’s a glaring oversight in this book. No-where can I find the velocity of an un-laden European swallow. No-where.
On the other hand, I did find out that the amount of kinetic energy generated by stirring a cup of tea is only about one ten-millionth of a watt, and that you couldn’t possibly boil a cup of water by stirring vigorously. And that if the sun went out, we’d have better satellite communications and safer parsnips, but on the down side, we would freeze and die, which seems like a high price to pay for avoiding parsnip-induced dermatitis. And that there were no earthworms in North America until European settlement.
Yes, this book exactly what the title says it is: serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions, straight from the inbox of xkcd creator Randall Monroe.
Like: ‘If you call a random phone number and say “God bless you”, what are the chances that the person who answers just sneezed?’. (One in 40 000)
Or: ‘How much Force power can Yoda output?’ (About 19.2kW, or roughly 25 horsepower) The working for this is an absolute joy, and ignores the prequels (presumably because eeeeew, and midichlorians).
And: ‘What would happen if you set off a nuclear bomb in the eye of a hurricane? Would the storm cell be immediately vaporized?’. Turns out that this question is asked so frequently that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued an official response, which includes the words, ‘Needless to say, this is not a good idea’.
There are many, many more questions, almost all of them gloriously barmy.
This a book that belongs in the toilet. And I mean that as high praise.
Virginia Tressider is a science writer and editor who used to be a philosopher, and still can’t quite kick the habit. She collects nerdy t-shirts and taxidermy, and is available for freelance jobs.
Virginia’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/tweetingtechno