What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randal Munroe, 2014

Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Club Discussion Questions

Meeting Date: November 17, 2015.

Author Bio: Randall Patrick Munroe is an American webcomic author/artist and former NASA roboticist. He is the creator of the webcomic xkcd, which after leaving NASA, he has devoted himself to full time. His book, What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions was published in 2014.

Summary: From the creator of the wildly popular webcomic xkcd, hilarious and informative answers to important questions you probably never thought to ask.

Millions of people visit xkcd.com each week to read Randall Munroe’s iconic webcomic. His stick-figure drawings about science, technology, language, and love have an enormous, dedicated following, as do his deeply researched answers to his fans’ strangest questions.


[Note:   According to Munroe, xkcd is unpronounceable. “It’s not actually an acronym.  It’s just a word with no phonetic pronunciation—a treasured and carefully-guarded point in the space of four-character strings.”]

The queries he receives range from merely odd to downright diabolical:

• What if I took a swim in a spent-nuclear-fuel pool?

• Could you build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?

• What if a Richter 15 earthquake hit New York City?

• Are fire tornadoes possible?

• What if a woman were to have sperm cells made from her own stem cells and then impregnated herself?

Munroe’s responses are masterpieces of clarity and wit, gleefully and accurately explaining everything from the relativistic effects of a baseball pitched at near the speed of light to the many horrible ways you could die while building a periodic table out of all the actual elements.


Discussion Questions:

Formulating discussion questions is a bit tricky for a book of this nature. Let’s go with a few general questions and then look at some of the more interesting questions and answers.

1. Did you find the book informative? Is channeling scientific inquiry through the lens of absurd questions an effective way to impart knowledge?

2. What about the combination of humor and science? Effective or does it somehow degrade the integrity of the science?

3. What is the central idea or theme, if any, of the book? Does Munroe adequately explain the math, theories, and processes by which he reaches his answers?

4. Some of the more interesting questions and answers:

a). What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?

If you were to actually construct this table, as you went further down, bad things would happen. Eventually, everything would be engulfed in flames, toxic gas, and radiation. My favorite line from this question was about the element astatine, which is highly radioactive and has a half-life of hours. According to Munroe, “There’s no material safety data sheet for astatine. If there were, it would just be the word “NO” scrawled over and over in charred blood.”

b). What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?

The answer to this question is really: “nothing.” But the real answer is: “life as we know would end.” And that is because if everyone in the world stopped what they were doing to travel to one spot to conduct this experiment, the global economy would collapse. Also, the surrounding infrastructure of the location where everyone went (in this example it was Rhode Island) would collapse. The cell networks would be overloaded, the traffic jams would be massive, and the airports would be overworked just to get everyone home.

c). What would happen if you were able to gather a mole (unit of measurement) of moles (the small furry critter) in one place?

If this mole of moles were on earth, it would cover the crust many times over. If it were in space, it would form some sort of mole planet with an inner core of boiling meat and plumes of gas from the decomposition of the moles. (Just picturing this planet makes me laugh.)

d). If you call a random number and say “God bless you,” what are the chances that the person who answers just sneezed?

There is the possibility that you would call up someone who committed murder, and that might give them the wrong idea. So maybe you should consider saying “I know what you did.” Although, there is a higher chance of talking to someone who just sneezed instead of a killer, so that might not be a great idea. (In fact, most answers in this book are bad ideas and Munroe admits that you probably shouldn’t take his suggestions and apply them to the real world.)

e). If a bullet with the density of a neutron star were fired from a handgun (ignoring the how) at the Earth’s surface, would the Earth be destroyed?

The best part about this answer is not what would happen to the Earth–but rather, what would happen to you, if you wanted to touch this bullet. The gravity field would be so strong, that if you reached the point where you were able to touch the bullet with your finger, all of the blood would be sucked out of your body, through your finger, and start rotating around the bullet. And in fact, because blood is denser than your hand, your hand would float on the bloody orb and propel you away from the bullet, to safety. (Neglecting the fact that you would lose all of your blood.)

Some of the weird and/or worrying questions:

Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself? (Answer: …is everything OK?)

How fast would a human have to run in order to be cut in half at the bellybutton by a cheese-cutting wire? (Answer: AAAAAAA!)

If you saved a whole life’s worth of kissing and used all that suction power on one single kiss, how much suction force would that single kiss have? (There is no answer to this in the book, but I want to add that I think this person may be kissing wrong.)

Can you survive a tidal wave by submerging yourself in an in-ground pool? (Answer: a graph indicating that this idea both sounds dumb and is actually dumb.)

What was your favorite question and answer?

5. Finally, did you like the book? Would you recommend it? Would the book serve as a good introduction to the process of scientific inquiry for younger readers?

Hope ya’ll enjoyed the book.  Now it is time to get back to work, I have some pressing business.  Duty calls!



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