Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions: A Review of What If?

Normally, I wouldn’t use the subtitle as a title for a book review, but there really isn’t any other way to say what this book is about. Randall Munroe’s What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is exactly what it says it is. Munroe combines the most outlandish questions he’s received with a scientific response that is built on a dry, geeky humor.

Everything that makes his wildly popular comic, xkcd work can be found in What If?

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 320 pages (hardcover) Source: Personal Library Available: Amazon

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
320 pages (hardcover)
Source: Personal Library
Available: Amazon

It begins with an appropriate disclaimer: “The author of this book is an internet cartoonist, not a health or safety expert. He likes it when things catch fire or explode, which means he does not have your best interests in mind.”

The absurd questions that make their way into the book are fantastic, ranging from the “I’ve wondered that myself” to “What the?,” with the latter especially true of a category of questions he calls “Weird (and Worrying).” The absurd (but not worrying) questions are often along these lines:

  • What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?
  • Which US state is actually flown over the  most?
  • If you call a random phone number and say “God bless you,” what are the chances that the person who answers just sneezed?
  • When, if ever, will Facebook contain more profiles of dead people than of living ones?
  • I read about some researchers who were trying to produce sperm from bone marrow stem cells. If a woman were to have sperm cells made from her own stem cells and impregnate herself, what would be her relationship to her daughter?
  • How long could a nuclear submarine last in orbrit?

2014-09-15 12.29.17

Answers to these questions are often surprising. For example:

Q. What if I took a swim in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool? Would I need to dive to actually experience a fatal amount of radiation? How Long could I stay safely at the surface?

A. Assuming you’re a reasonably good swimmer, you could probably survive treading water from 10 to 40 hours. At that point, you would black out from fatigue and drown. This is also true for a pool without nuclear fuel in the bottom.

It is also not so much the direct answer, as it is the route that he takes to get there, which most interesting.

Spent fuel from nuclear reactors is highly radioactive. Water is good for both radiation shielding and cooling, so fuel is stored at the bottom of pools for a couple of decades until it’s inert enough to be moved into dry casks….you could swim around as long as you wanted—the dose from the core would be less than the normal background radiation dose you get walking around. In fact, as long as you were underwater, you would be shielded from most of the normal background dose. You may actually receive a lower dose of radiation treading water in a spent fuel pool than walking around on the street.

The “Weird and Worrying” category is appropriately named. He also steers away from answering them, and probably for a good reason.

  • What is the total nutritional value (calories, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc.) of the average human body?
  • What temperature would a chainsaw (or other cutting implement) need to be at to instantly cauterize any injuries inflicted with it?
  • How many houses are burned down in the United States every year? What would be the easiest way to increase that number by a significant amount (say, at least 15%)?
2014-09-15 12.25.13

What If? also keeps xkcd’s trademark stick figure art.

So if you’ve ever wondered: “if someone’s DNA suddenly vanished, how long would that person last?” or “How much physical space does the Internet take up?,” or want fuel for outlandish conversations, then get this book. You can read it from cover to cover or just start by selecting the most interesting questions. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

In search of belief changing ideas