Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book Review of What If? by Randall Munroe

It’s a New Year. Time to scrape the sludge from the old noggin and find answers to those questions that have kept you awake all night. Well, they’ve kept me awake, anyway. I really need to find a hobby.

Randall Munroe is a former NASA roboticist and creator of the webcomic xkcd. His tackles esoteric questions both large and small with a cheeky sense of humor and delightfully irreverent stick figure drawings. Unlike dry, dusty scientific textbooks Munroe takes a humorous approach, dealing with matters of physics, chemistry and biology—even daring to tackle matters of the heart. Einstein would never have tried to determine the possibility of a random encounter with a soulmate if one actually existed. (Sorry to say it is slim to none, so you better hold on to your current heartthrob while you can.)

His approach to scientific inquiry is both amusing and thought provoking. Who knew a continuously power hairdryer in a box is the secret to building a time machine? Warning: don’t try this at home with your Conair since it requires an indestructible casing and an unlimited power source. Also it is definitely not a good idea to fire off a nuclear device in the eye of hurricane to vaporize it. Apparently, this question gets asked so often to the National Oceanographic and Atmosphere Association that they even have a paper on the subject.

Some questions are unexpectedly thought provoking. If every human being disappeared from the face of the Earth, the last artificially created light source would take centuries to go out. No, it’s not the Energizer Bunny. Some radioactive waste products are melted, mixed with glass, and formed into a solid block. In the dark, these blocks glow blue. The last artificial light source would be a pile of toxic waste. Mankind’s crap will outlive all other technological achievements. Ha! Made you think, didn’t I?

All the question in the book have been submitted by fans of his website which does make one wonder about their mental stability. After all, who needs to know if you dial a random person and say “God Bless You” what is the probability that person has just sneezed? Oh, all right, I do.  And I was tickled pink to hear the answer is 1 in 40,000.

Despite the sciency stuff, this book is an easy, fun read and the stick figures are cute with a quirky charm. The biggest fault I found is the author fails to address the one question that has haunted me for years. Why are cologne commercials always stupid and make no damn sense?







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