RogerBW's Blog

What If?, Randall Munroe 03 November 2014

The author of the webcomic xkcd works out back-of-the-envelope answers to odd scientific questions.

Writing this review seems somewhat pointless. If you're at all interested in this sort of thing, you've probably already read What If? on the web and may even have bought the book. But just in case you're an exception, and because I promised myself I'd write a review of everything I read…

First of all, for readers of the web version, there's a reasonable amount of new material here (I recall without citation a claim of 51%, and that seems plausible). There are quite a few full articles, and twelve pages of "Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox" (such as "What is the total nutritional value (calories, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc.) of the average human body?"). Most, but not all, of the image title text from the web-published articles is included as notes or captions. I'm not sorry to have bought it.

If you don't read the web version, well, that's the easiest way to get a taste for the sort of material you'll find here. Munroe selects from questions submitted by readers, such as "What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?", and answers them in an informal style with rough but well-researched calculations, leavened by sketched cartoons.

This sort of enquiring thought is something of which I meet far too little in real life, and I'm encouraged that the book is apparently doing well. It's not that I need to know the results of a global windstorm; it's that I'm interested in the means by which those results are derived, and the mental tools in use. The book is not about relativistic baseballs or illuminating the moon with laser pointers; it's about having the mental agility to answer questions of that kind by looking at existing science and building from it.

If I had young relatives who were reading but who hadn't yet had inquiry and creativity stamped out of them by school, I'd send them copies of this book.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog. ["As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases."]

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