Book Review: What If? by Randall Munroe


Author: Randall Munroe
Title:What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Summary/Review:

This book contains the sentence: “Aroldis Chapman could probably throw a golf ball about sixteen giraffes high.” That alone makes it worth reading. The creator of the webcomic xkcd, Randall Munroe uses math and science to investigate cornball questions from his readers.  If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if a baseball were pitched at the speed of light, what would happen if every person in the world jumped at the same place at the same time (say, Rhode Island), or what place on earth would allow for the longest free fall, this book is for you.  In addition to Munroe’s humorous, but mathematically explicit, explanations there are plenty of whimsical illustrations.  There are also a series of questions too weird and worrying for even Munroe to answer.
Favorite Passages:

Our plastic will become shredded and buried, and perhaps some microbes will learn to digest it, but in all likelihood, a million years from now, an out-of-place layer of processed hydrocarbons—transformed fragments of our shampoo bottles and shopping bags—will serve as a chemical monument to civilization.

 

If humans escape the solar system and outlive the Sun, our descendants may someday live on one of these planets. Atoms from Times Square, cycled through the heart of the Sun, will form our new bodies. One day, either we will all be dead, or we will all be New Yorkers.

 

So we shouldn’t worry too much about when computers will catch up with us in complexity. After all, we’ve caught up to ants, and they don’t seem too concerned. Sure, we seem like we’ve taken over the planet, but if I had to bet on which one of us would still be around in a million years—primates, computers, or ants—I know who I’d pick.

 

if an astronaut on the ISS listens to “I’m Gonna Be,” in the time between the first beat of the song and the final lines . . .  . . . they will have traveled just about exactly 1000 miles.

 

Rule of thumb: One person per square meter is a light crowd, four people per square meter is a mosh pit.

 

Al Worden, the Apollo 15 command module pilot, even enjoyed the experience. There’s a thing about being alone and there’s a thing about being lonely, and they’re two different things. I was alone but I was not lonely. My background was as a fighter pilot in the air force, then as a test pilot—and that was mostly in fighter airplanes—so I was very used to being by myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t have to talk to Dave and Jim any more . . . On the backside of the Moon, I didn’t even have to talk to Houston and that was the best part of the flight. Introverts understand; the loneliest human in history was just happy to have a few minutes of peace and quiet.

Recommended books: 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks, What’s next? : dispatches on the future of science : original essays from a new generation of scientists by Max Brockman, and Feynman by Jim Ottiavani
Rating: ****

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