What if - Book review

What If by Randall Munroe – Book Review

This book is a must have for all scientists and other curious minds. What If? – Serious Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe is exactly as the title and subtitle describes. Engineer Randall Munroe answers the absurd questions that he receives on his blog xkcd.com in an extensive, scientific way – and he does so in a comical way. In this article you can read my book review about What If?.

If there is one person that is fit for the job of writing a book such as this one, it is Randall Munroe. He is an engineer with a degree in physics and he has worked for NASA. Besides all this, he is a cartoonist and the creater of webcomic xkcd. Thanks to his skills and experience, he is able to:

  1. Have enough physical understanding of the world (and universe) to answer the questions asked and know who to contact/where to look if he doesn’t know the answer himself
  2. Write the answers down and explain the answers and physics behind it in such a way that it is comprehensible for other people (that do not have the same level of knowledge)
  3. Make you laugh while you are learning interesting (but mostly unneccesary) facts.

Probably at least one the questions that appear in this book crossed your mind at some point in your life. Questions that Randall Munroe answers are for example: “What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped”, “What if someone’s DNA vanished” and, relevant for the times we live in now: “If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn’t the common cold be wiped out?”

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My opinion about What If?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading What If?. In the very first chapter Munroe, by chance, mentioned two cities that have been very important in my life, Longyearbyen (Svalbard) and Helsinki, which immediately gave me more of a connection to the book. Also, the topic discussed in the first chapter (“What would happen if the earth would stop spinning”) was interesting. One immediately gets a feeling for what the rest of the book will be like and for the kind of humor that Randall Munroe uses. All the explanations and discussions in the book are accompanied by some witty comics.

What If book review - An example of "weird and worrying questions from the what if inbox".
An example of the comics in one of the hilarious weird and worrying questions from the what if inbox section More about this under book summary

The book is full of interesting facts and you might learn a lot from it, although the things you learn are not so practical that they immediately benefit you in real life. Of course, some topics and discussions in the book are more fun or interesting than others, but this is also a matter of taste. My main criticism is that often in the book, US units are used. More use of SI-units would in my opinion definitely improve the book, but Americans might argue otherwise. 😉

I found the book easy to read, although it might be slightly harder – but most likely not undoable – for someone with less of a scientific background. One last thing I particularly liked about this book is that it gives an insight in the fantasy and imagination of people and the weird questions that can occupy people’s minds.

Book summary of What If?

It is quite hard to give a summary about What If, since the book does not consist out of one big story. The book has a chapter for every question that Manroe deals with and the chapters are rather short, consisting out of a few pages. Besides the questions above, some other examples of questions treated in the book are: “What would happen to the earth if the sun suddenly switched off”, “What if a Richter magnitude 15 earthquake were to hit New York City”, “What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person” and “Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-facing machine guns”.

Monroe has a similar approach for every of the questions he attempts to answer. He generally starts by stating why the topic or situation described is weird or implausible and sometimes he directly gives the answer. After that he starts introducing the topic more extensively, he says what assumptions are done – a lot of assumptions are done for most topics, but that is the only way one can answer such hypothetical questions – and explains the basic physics behind the topic.

After finishing one explanation, Monroe often elaborates his answer to the questions by adjusting the assumptions, so in this way he covers the topics more extensively and he discusses plenty of different scenarios for the questions asked.

Besides the chapters that are completely dedicated to one question, he also has a Short-Answer Section. Lastly, the weirdest questions (that Munroe did not bother to answer) are called “weird and worrying questions from the what if inbox”. Those questions – that sometimes makes you doubt the sender’s well-being – are accompanied by funny comics and are a great addition to the book.

What If? 2

What If? came out on 2 September 2014 and I was very excited to hear that after 8 years, on 13 September this year (2022), the 2nd part (What If? 2) comes out! There is no doubt I will read What If? 2.

I hope this book review of What If was of use to you. You can find more book reviews here.

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