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What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions [Hardcover]

Randall Munroe
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 Sep 2014


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

Millions visit xkcd.com each week to read Randall Munroe's iconic webcomic. Fans ask him a lot of strange questions: How fast can you hit a speed bump, driving, and live? When (if ever) did the sun go down on the British Empire? When will Facebook contain more profiles of dead people than living? How many humans would a T Rex rampaging through New York need to eat a day?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations and consults nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, complemented by comics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion.

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Frequently Bought Together

What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions + Xkcd: Volume 0 + Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray (4 Sep 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848549571
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848549579
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 3.1 x 20.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 94 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


With this book and with XKCD, you're a kid with a chemistry set all over again. [Randall Munroe's] enthusiasm for all things scientific is infectious . . . required reading for grown-ups, it's just fun to remember that science is really, really cool (REGISTER)

Smart answers to silly questions: Randall Munroe reveals all (GUARDIAN)

What If? maintains a delightfully free-wheeling tone throughout, especially when complicated calculations lead to whimsical results. Despite all the hard facts and gigantic numbers, it never feels like a textbook-and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy it (ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY)

The best bathroom book you'll ever buy...Munroe takes inane, useless and often quite pointless questions asked by real humans (mostly sent to him through his website), and turns them into beautiful expositions on the impossible that illuminate the furthest reaches, almost to the limits, of the modern sciences .The first chapter, "Q. What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?" ends with the anthropomorphized moon worrying over the state of the Earth, and, with the gravity generated by its own rotation around the Earth, saving our dying planet. The physics are real; so is the emotional content. . . The answers are all illustrated with xkcd's trademark stick figures.. . . . and these are eminently approachable (NEWSWEEK)


What If? includes old favorites, new inquiries and the mix of expert research and accessible wit that has made Munroe a favorite among both geeks and laymen (TIME)

Munroe's brilliant What-If? column-which features scientifically rigorous, utterly absurd answers to ridiculous hypotheticals-has been on the bestseller lists since it was announced in March. Today, it hits shelves and: It. Is. A. Triumph (BOINGBOING)

[What If?] has solved my annual birthday-present and holiday-gift dilemmas for a large group of people . . . What makes Munroe's work so fantastic is a combination of two elements: his commitment to trying to answer even the weirdest question with solid science, and his undeniable sense of humour. So, here's a "What If?" from me: If everyone on the planet simultaneously bought a copy of this book, stopped what they were doing and read it cover to cover, would modern civilization and our global economy collapse? It's worth trying the experiment. (HUFFINGTON POST)

For the record, I'm loving XKCD's What If -- 'Dear Abby for mad scientists' (NEIL GAIMAN)

Munroe has hit on a wonderful form of science and engineering communication that can do so much-extolling the value of analytical thinking, examining data, and doing back-of-the-envelope calculations-while entertaining readers at the same time . . . an incredibly fun book with quirky, hand-drawn pictures (AMERICAN SCIENTIST)

Thoughtful, scientific, and highly entertaining (PARADE)

If you're the kind of person whose brain whizzes with questions, Munroe's book may calm the noise. He's done all the hard work for you (SHORTLIST)

XKCD is nerd royalty, the alpha dork, there's no geek more widely cited and loved (BEN GOLDACRE, author of BAD SCIENCE)

It's totally brilliant and everyone who matters already knows that! (TIM HARFORD, THE UNDERCOVER ECONOMIST)

Education should aim to teach people to reason confidently about problems that they have never come across before. This book is a great deal of fun, and a masterclass in such reasoning. Like all the best lessons, you only realise you've learnt something once you've finished it (The Economist)

Book Description

Science's most intriguing questions answered by the web's favourite writer, the genius behind xkcd.com.

Munroe's hilarious and compelling answers explain everything from the odds of meeting your one true soulmate to how many humans a rampaging T-Rex would need to eat a day.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By Brian Clegg TOP 500 REVIEWER
I am deeply suspicious whenever a book is sold on the basis that its author is in some sense famous, so I was immediately wary of Randall Munroe's What If, especially as the book was plastered with references to his internet science cartoon site xkcd. The press release gets even more excited, proclaiming 'Science's most intriguing questions answered by the web's favourite writer, the genius behind XKCD.com.' Damn him with faint praise, won't you? This isn't helped by the fact that the few times I've seen Munroe's stick cartoons, usually re-spread on social media, I haven't found them at all funny. So it was almost a disappointment when I discovered that I really liked this book.

Munro gives detailed answers to weird questions asked from readers on his website. Questions like 'If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change colour?' and 'How much Force power can Yoda output?' There are even some questions that Munroe shakes his head and retreats from - things like 'How many houses are burned down in the US every year? What would be the easiest way to increase the number by a significant amount (say, at least 15%)?'

The answers given are light hearted, but take the challenge seriously and with some impressive back-of-an-envelope calculation and a touch of research deliver convincing answers. There is a distinguished precedent in taking absurd suggestions (admittedly self-generated) and using them to explore the realities of science in George Gamow's classic (if now rather difficult to read) Mr Tompkins books where, for instance, he explores what would happen if the speed of light reduced to a walking pace.
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95 of 101 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I think my copy is defective. 6 Sep 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I've been hovering my finger over one of the illustrations for five minutes now, and the tooltip still hasn't appeared.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A-Minus-Minus 16 Sep 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Instead of book package contained bobcat.
Would not buy again.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Randall Munroe is an ex-NASA robotics guy, physics graduate, and cartoonist of great merit.
The cartoon is called XKCD, for reasons that are (of course) documented on his site.
The cartoons are so erudite that there is another web site (a para-site?) called explainxkcd that explains the XKCD cartoons on a daily basis.
You won't need that sort of help when reading this book. It is suitable for all ages and abilities, and opens with the question he 'researched' as a 5-year-old. Recorded in writing by his Mum, it seems. A precocious kid who has fulfilled his early promise!
The title says it all. What it does not say is that the book is gently humorous, and takes care to explain the science content in terms that are plain to all, and (at the same time) it is not over-simplified for an old, hairy engineer/navigator - like me.
A great read.
There is an error on page 4. Yes, really.
Suspect it is there to entertain people like myself - it caused me more glee than seems fair! < enormous grin >
Details will be popped into the comments to avoid being a spoiler here.
Recommended for everybody!
Big thanks to Amazon for delivering this (for free) on the morning that the book was released here.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I almost never write reviews for books, even books I really like. But this time I need to make an exception: for this is a book that caused me to laugh out loud on almost every page. At every turn, there was a delightful footnote, or a novel concept, even occasionally a new word ("apricity" has become my new favourite, too). My mind is stretched in fantastic and interesting ways, I was entertained continuously, and I couldn't put it down. What more can you ask? Well, my wife asked - eventually, and then repeatedly - that I stop reading particularly fine snippets of it out to her as it was interrupting her, but even this proved something of a challenge for me, for this book is a fine, fine thing indeed.

Randall Muroe - I salute you.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars FULL OF HUMOR AND HARD FACTS! 30 Aug 2014
By the GreatReads! TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Audio CD
I expected What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd, to be an entertaining read. But its fun and knowledge value far exceeded my expectations. One of the best non-fiction books I have read in a long, long time, What If? is a book of science, humor, comics, reference, comedy and trivia. It is an informative and enjoyable as the author has delightfully mixed fun with the hard stuffs which make it almost impossible to put it down.

This amazing book of over three hundred pages contains a number of questions that you'd never think of. Yet, reading the questions and answers would make you to sit up and think things you've never thought before. Just sample this: What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person? Were they lonely? Answer: It's hard to know for sure. The most likely suspects are the six Apollo command module pilots who stayed in lunar orbit during a Moon landing: Mike Collins, Dick Gordon, Stu Roosa, Al Worden, Ken Mattingly, and Ron Evans. Each of these astronauts stayed alone in the command module while two other astronauts landed on the Moon. At the highest point in their orbit, they were about 3585 kilometers from their fellow astronauts.

Fun, engaging, enlightening and hilarious, this is a must-read book if you want the answer to some weird questions like, Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself? Or what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?
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