“What If ?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions”: Bringing Popular Science Into the Next Level

January 31, 2015

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“What If ?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions”


Randall Munroe

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Publication Date: 02/09/2014

If you heard the word math, or natural science, or biology, or physics, things that popped up in your head might be some of those boring things about theories and numbers. Many people are allergic to these words, maybe some of them are even traumatic, remembering the times in school when everyone of us, Indonesian, have to learn it involuntarily. Remembering my school times when the next day is the report card day is possibly one of the worst memory I can clearly recall. Especially, to those subjects. But now, the time has changed. Thanks to TV series like House, the Big Bang Theory, and even the CSI Series (and of course the educational channels like National Geographic or Discovery Channel, and History Channel for the social science), or movies like Interstellar or Gravity, science is now placed in a better place in our mind. It is being more interesting if it is interpreted in this way, rather than on the black board with white scratch of chalks. These TV Series have managed to bring science into another level: popular.

The word popular here doesn’t equal with famous, but rather, if I quote the dictionary.com, “adapted to the ordinary intelligence or taste.” Yes, popular science are bringing these complicated science stuff into an  easier-to-understand level. Popular science doesn’t necessarily made to be understood by those who are wanting to be a scientist. You can’t be a doctor by watching the whole season of House, but at least, it gives you a very-basic-but-not-yet-appliable-knowledge on medicine (maybe some of them are appliable though). But still, it gives you something interesting about the world of medicine, which is more complicated and less interesting in the real world. That is the power of popular, it mades boring thing awesome.

Randall Munroe, a former NASA Robotics and webcomic artist saw this opportunity, and started a webcomic entitle xkcd. The webcomic itself is presenting humors to the reader. One of the section is the “What-if” section, in which Munroe will answer an absurd question scientifically. Yes, scientifically. Questions like “What if there was a lake on the Moon? What would it be like to swim in it? Presuming that it is sheltered in a regular atmosphere, in some giant dome or something.Munroe will answer it with the gravity theory, etc. This section of the site is getting more and more popular, and voila, here comes the book !

On 2014, Munroe finally published the book entitled “What If ?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.” It contains series of questions that is being asked into Munroe’s website, in which Munroe will answer it hypothetically. Munroe ‘divided’ this book into 3 sections: the main section, the short answer section, and the funniest one, ‘weird (and worrying) questions from the what if ? inbox’.

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The main section contains of absurd questions which Munroe will answer with a hypothetical scientific answer, for example: “Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns ?” which were asked by Rob B.. Munroe answered it in a quite long answer, 3 pages long, along with the mathematical hypothesis like, how many energy can an AK-47 generates for the thrust, and how many bullets ones need to fly with the recoil of the AK-47. The answer is hypothetically possible, he said, but of course, it’s only hypothetical, he didn’t really do the experiment, just the possible outcome of those.

While the short answer section, Munroe answered a question with a very short answer (obviously), those are only like half page long. For example, a question from Rupert Bainbridge (and hundreds of others) “what would happen if you set off a nuclear bomb in the eye of a hurricane ? Would the storm cell be immediately vaporized ?”. The answer starts with how he stated that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also received the same question, a lot. And the answer is pretty simple: “needless to say, this is not a good idea.”

And the funniest section, the weird and worrying questions is my most favorite. It answers (and not answers) weird and worrying questions such as: “if people had wheels and could fly, how could we differentiate them from airplanes ?” by Anonymous which has no answer, or “is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself ?” by Karl Wildermuth, in which Munroe answer with a simple graphic asking if Karl is all right (it is indeed, worrying, right ?).

In the end, Munroe managed to take popular science to the next level. How is that ? While the ‘normal’ popular science only talks about the everyday science, those are already performed on lab or field, Munroe’s books talks about what might lies beyond. Of course the labs can predict what was in the Dinosaurs world, but it’d be boring, again, it is not popular, not every people can enjoy the scientific journal on Dinosaurs, but Munroe, with his witty style and simplistic but to the point comics, can make the science popular.

In the end, this book deserves a big praise. It can makes science funny, not boring, easy to understand, and last but not least, not disregarding the theory itself. All of the (hypothetical) answers are scientifically plausible (and funny).


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