In the introduction to his unexpected bestseller, author, scientist and web-comic guru Randall Munroe says “They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong.” Working in a public library we don’t encounter stupid questions, a more accurate description may be tiring questions. What If’s questions (and answers) turn out to be neither stupid nor tiring, rather they are witty, thought provoking and often very, very funny.
Even the inside of the dust jacket is entertaining (certainly the first time I’ve ever encountered this in a book!). Munroe has drawn a map of the world, but the familiar shapes are not quite right. The key tells us it is “The World: After a portal to Mars opened at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, draining most the Oceans (sorry about that).” After the portal to Mars event there is, of course, a lot less water. There is now a West Atlantic and an East Atlantic, separated by dry land with mountains called (what else?) Atlantis. The mountainous island nation of New Zealand got a lot bigger with an entire new section labeled “Newer Zealand.”
The “Serious Scientific Answers” from the subtitle really are serious. Munroe attempts to answer questions using the best scientific knowledge currently available, and lots of scary looking math. He has a quirky style that he uses to answer some very quirky questions, such as: “How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?” This is the sort of question my sons asked all the time growing up, but they didn’t expect (well, I didn’t give) a serious answer. For this question, Munroe gives six pages of Serious Answer, including his famous stick-figure diagrams. (You’ll have to read the book to learn how many Legos you’ll have to acquire to avoid a transatlantic plane fare).
The Absurd Hypothetical Questions can be submitted by anyone through Munroe’s extremely funny, science-based web comic xkcd. I often enjoy the comic, but I admit that some of it goes whoosh straight over my head (these seem to be the ones that my nerdy children laugh hardest at). xkcd are purported to be the only letters in the English language that can’t be pronounced as a word (although I don’t see what’s wrong with saying “Ex, Kay, See, Dee”). Even Munroe finds some of the questions so bizarre that he doesn’t answer them. Some of these get their own sections called “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox,” including examples such as, “What is the total nutritional value (calories, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc.) of the average human body?” or “Would it be possible to get your teeth to such a cold temperature that they would shatter upon drinking a hot cup of coffee?” These are not things to try at home. As Munroe says, “I like it when things catch fire and explode, which means I do not have your best interests in mind.”
What If? is a great book for science fans and is fun to browse when you’re feeling like something lighter after plowing through six-hundred page scientific behemoths like The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee or Spillover by David Quammen. The questions may be absurd as the subtitle claims, but the answers are scientific and who knows, if you buy a copy for the stocking of your family nerd, it may spark (or rekindle) a lifelong interest in science.
Check the WRL catalog for What If?