Skip to main content

What If - Randall Munroe ****

I am deeply suspicious whenever a book is sold on the basis that its author is in some sense famous, so I was immediately wary of Randall Munroe's What If, especially as the book was plastered with references to his internet science cartoon site xkcd. The press release gets even more excited, proclaiming 'Science's most intriguing questions answered by the web's favourite writer, the genius behind XLCD.com.' Damn him with faint praise, won't you? This isn't helped by the fact that the few times I've seen Munroe's stick cartoons, usually re-spread on social media, I haven't found them at all funny. So it was almost a disappointment when I discovered that I really liked this book.

Munro gives detailed answers to weird questions asked from readers on his website. Questions like 'If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change colour?' and 'How much Force power can Yoda output?' There are even some questions that Munroe shakes his head and retreats from - things like 'How many houses are burned down in the US every year? What would be the easiest way to increase the number by a significant amount (say, at least 15%)?'

The answers given are light hearted, but take the challenge seriously and with some impressive back-of-an-envelope calculation and a touch of research deliver convincing answers. There is a distinguished precedent in taking absurd suggestions (admittedly self-generated) and using them to explore the realities of science in George Gamow's classic (if now rather difficult to read) Mr Tompkins books where, for instance, he explores what would happen if the speed of light reduced to a walking pace.

The main problem with Gamow's books is that they suffer from an excess of whimsy, which was considered funny at the time, something that Munroe does occasional succumb to in his footnotes. Two other slight problems with What If are that some of the problems are so silly that it's easy to think 'So what?' and after a while the format gets a bit samey.

However, it's hard not to admire the straight faced aplomb with which Munroe deals with weird problem after weird problem - and often takes them so far over the top they become more interesting still. (For instance when asking a question about a hair dryer in a box, he considers the outcome for different powers of hair dryers up to 11 petawatts, which is considerably more than the EU likes to allow for electrical goods. (Sorry, the whimsy is catching.) ) 

The fact is this is a very likeable and fun book that should entertain many readers.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…