I don’t really need to review this, do I?
Randall Munroe is the much-beloved writer and illustrator of the much-beloved webcomic xkcd. He puts his physics and robotics background to good use creating humorous situations based on science, mathematics, and nerd culture. He has since branched out with What If?, a weekly blog in which Munroe answers over-the-top questions by following the facts to whatever consequences they might lead.
This is the book of the blog.
(That’s like the book of the movie, only it’s a blog, not a movie. Savvy?)
So if you’re curious about what this book is like, just go read the blog. You can do that for free. Many of the chapters in the book are reprints from the blog—though some posts have been revised, expanded, or mutated through exposure to gamma radiation. Some of the chapters are new, and just as hilarious.
That’s the defining characteristic of What If? for me: it’s a wonderful demonstration of how asking—and answering—questions is fun, and that really should be the backbone of any science education effort.
Now, much like Republican politicians, I am not a scientist. I don’t even play one on TV. But I am a mathematician (which is kind of like a scientist, only cooler), and I’m an educator. Math and science share a lot of the bum rap when it comes to which subjects kids enjoy in school, and most of it is bad PR on the part of parents, policy-makers, and teachers. And this makes me angry, because science is wonderful and fascinating and awesome, and I want kids to love it just like I want kids to love math. Even if they don’t particularly want to grow up working in a field that requires a working knowledge of particle physics or a penchant for solving partial differential equations, I want them to dip their toes with joy and abandon into the oceans of inquiry and problem-solving—and not feel pressured or shamed by the fallout from standardized tests that label them with numbers and letters and predictors of success.
Munroe is one of a cadre of Internet peoples who is leading the charge in a glorious vanguard of new science education. He gets it. He has that golden spark of talent that puts him in the sweet spot of both knowing the science behind these issues as well as being able to write about them in a humorous, entertaining way. What If? is like an armchair version of MythBusters and no less amazing for it.
I’m not exaggerating when I’m saying that I enjoyed every single chapter in this book. I laughed out loud frequently. Even the less interesting ones, or the ones I read before on the blog, are nice to revisit. This is a great coffeetable book for geeks: you can dip in and out of it at will.
My favourite chapter has to be “Periodic Wall of Elements,” in which Munroe explains the consequences of trying to construct a periodic table wherein each entry is a sample of the element in question. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well, for you, or your lab, or the city around it.) He just has such a dry style of writing:
Sometimes this kind of panic over scary chemicals is disproportionate; there are trace amounts of natural arsenic in all our food and water, and we handle those fine. This is not one of those times.
And then slightly later, describing the effects of building the sixth row of the periodic table:
The radiation levels would be incredibly high. Given that it takes a few hundred milliseconds to blink, you would literally get a lethal dose of radiation in the blink of an eye.
You would die from what we might call “extremely acute radiation poisoning”—that is, you would be cooked.
The seventh row would be much worse.
This tendency for understatement combines with a keen sense of meta-fictional absurdity that Munroe regularly demonstrates in his webcomic. Indeed, as if his delightful prose is not enough on its own, every answer comes complete with several xkcd-style illustrations that have the same cheeky humour of the comic.
What If? is awesome. Full stop. If you are not convinced of this and want to be convinced, go read the blog and the comic. Then buy the book. Then enjoy the hours of entertainment and education you will receive. Share it with kids, and make them love science. Even if it kills them.*
*Please science responsibly, especially if kids are involved. Do not blow things up unless you are a trained professional and have taken appropriate safety measures. Don’t try anything in this book at home. At worst it is very dangerous and would likely destroy the planet; at best, it is extremely impractical and would cost a fortune in electricity.