At first it might seem dismissive and reductive to call anything "a bathroom book", or a "waiting room" book, (when was the last time you saw a book in a waiting room, anyway?) but unfortunately, this is the appellation under which most "factoid" (or light humor) books must labor.
However, were you to relegate this amazing book to your WC, despite the number of flushes you hear in a day, there would always be a line.
In the case of "What If", this tragic location it is a far cry from what is deserved by the quality of writing, the subject and sense of humor herein. While obviously not having narrative, story or continuity, it has a greater consistency than could be called a topic- humor. OK, two. Humor and patience. Three: Humor, patience, and some amazing research.
A disclaimer from Randall Munroe: "I am a guy who draws pictures on the Internet. I like it when things catch fire and explode, which means I do not have your best interests in mind."
I was instantly hooked.
Further: For the question that warrants a different sort of answer- "What happens if you set off a nuclear bomb in the center of a hurricane? Would the storm cell be vaporized?" Munroe has only to quote NOAA as they reply, "Needless to say, this is not a good idea." Unsurprisingly, he cites their entire reference article.) In fact, the text is followed by a goodly section of references.
There is no doubt he went the distance on these questions, and did so with a mind to give the most accurate, honest and flat out funny answer possible, in some cases going far over the top than the original question requires. These are the truly great ones.
You can read it cover to cover if you, well, can read it cover to cover. I tried- but each question was either so bizarre ("Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?") or compellingly simple ("How high can you throw something?") and answered with equal time, patience and laugh out loud humor that you will not want to miss a page. My copy is already thumb marked and creased from floating around so much. And don't loan it to anyone.
Anyone familiar with Randall Munroes's excellent and oft-reposted internet comic, "xkcd" ("A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.")will not be surprised but quite pleased to have a portable, non-electronic version of one of my favorite parts of Munroe's strip- the reader questions. The website consists of not merely these questions, but strips often based life in general through twisted looks via probability science. Another feature, of course, is the "What If" section, from where the rich number of these are drawn.
Here are collected what we must assume are the best of these questions, postulating impossible and absurd questions that might, in some other universe, be quite serious. And as best as one can with tongue in cheek, Munroe uses his extensive background in math and physics to give every question the answer, no matter how improbably. An indestructible heater running on infinite power in a sealed one-meter cube- haven't you always wondered?
Some are just inexplicable and unanswered "Weird And Worrying Questions", perhaps for "What If" Vol II.
But if I had to state a theme, it is that of suffering fools gladly, which the author proves page after page after page. Even though to a scientist, especially a scientist with a great sense of humor, as the maxim says, "there are no stupid questions"
I had hoped to find the real answer to some of the questions most famously posed by comedian Steven Wright, maybe 30 years ago, perhaps previously the best known purveyor of same-
"If you are in a spaceship that is traveling at the speed of light, and you turn on the headlights, does anything happen?" It would not surprise me if this has been addressed already.
"Sponges grow in the ocean. That just kills me. I wonder how much deeper the ocean would be if that didn't happen."
This book could be considered to be impossible to read in a sitting, or at least continuously, and yet too good to resist trying. Impossible primarily because it is so well written- just the right touch of serious science and irrepressible humor. Not to mention, the questions do nothing if but give cause for the reader to sit slack jawed and wonder how they could have been conceived in the first place, let alone uttered aloud.
So here's an unlikely comparison, but in fact it was one of my earliest thoughts: Bill Griffith's "Zippy The Pinhead" and Munroe's "What If?"
While the text in Zippy - often the title itself- usually makes a point, or describes the strip or does not seem immediately relevant, it is nothing compared to the artwork, which is usually so subtly stunning few people recognize it as such
"What If?" and its Internet source, Munroe's fabulous "xkcd dot com" is more or less the opposite. The still entertaining artwork is not any big deal (though still informing the comic) but the text is mind blowing. I mean no disrespect to either author- quite the opposite, I am huge fans of both.
Randall Munroe treats each question as if it had the gravity (a lot of gravity questions here- sorry) of your typical "is there intelligent life in the universe (on Earth, for that matter) yet maintains the attitude of early Bill Cosby- "Why is there air?"
This is one of the most captivating and thoroughly enjoyable books I have seen in a long time.