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What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions Hardcover – September 2, 2014

4.6 out of 5 stars 2,323 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, September 2014: What if everyone on earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time? What if you could drain all the water from the oceans? What if all the lightning in the world struck the same place? What if there were a book that considered weird, sometimes ridiculous questions, and it was so compelling that you found yourself skimming its pages to find out what would happen if you threw a baseball at light speed? With What If, Randall Munroe has written such a book. As he does in his extraordinarily popular xkcd webcomic, Munroe applies reason and research to hypothetical conundrums ranging from the philosophical to the scientific (often absurd, but never pseudo) that probably seemed awesome in your elementary school days—but were never sufficiently answered. It’s the rare combination of edifying and fun. —Jon Foro

Review

“What If? is one of my Internet must-reads, and I look forward to each new installment, and always read it with delight.” —Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing

“Randall Munroe is a national treasure.” —Phil Plait

“For scientists, the price of progress is specialization. When the goal of any researcher is to lay claim to a tiny niche in a crowded discipline, it’s hard for laypeople to find answers to the really important interdisciplinary questions. Questions like, 'Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?' Fortunately, such people can turn to Randall Munroe, the author of the XKCD comic strip loved by fans of internet culture. . . . For Munroe, who writes with a clarity and wit honed over eight years of writing captions for his webcomic, the fact that a question might be impossible to solve is no deterrent to pursuing it.” —Wall Street Journal Speakeasy blog

"By speaking the language of geeks. . . while dealing with relationships and the meaning of a computer-centric life, xkcd has become required reading for techies across the world….The Internet has also created a bond between Mr. Munroe and his readers that is exceptional. They reenact in real life the odd ideas he puts forward in his strip." —The New York Times

"With his steady regimen of math jokes, physics jokes, and antisocial optimism, xkcd creator Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, scores traffic numbers in NBC.com or Oprah.com territory. One key to the strip’s success may be that it doesn’t just comment on nerd culture, it embodies nerd culture." —Wired, in an issue featuring "the people who have shaped the planet’s past 20 years"

"Sometimes the beloved geek-chic webcomic xkcd is funny in a broadly accessible way. Sometimes it’s achingly poignant, sometimes it’s socially intelligent, and sometimes it’s esoteric humor that programmers or scientists have to explain to the rest of us. But at its most ambitious, it either packs massive amounts of interesting information into a small space, or engages in breathtaking experiments with the medium….[A]t its best [xkcd] isn’t a strip comic so much as an idea factory and a shared experience." —Onion AV Club
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (September 2, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0544272994
  • ISBN-13: 978-0544272996
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2,323 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #158 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Randall Munroe is the author of the popular webcomic xkcd and the science question-and-answer blog What If. Randall was born in Easton, Pennsylvania and grew up outside Richmond, Virginia. After studying physics at Christopher Newport University, he got a job building robots at NASA Langley Research Center. In 2006, he left NASA to draw comics on the internet full-time, supporting himself through the sale of xkcd t-shirts, prints, posters, and books. He likes candlelight dinners and long walks on the beach. Very long walks. Lots of people say they like long walks on the beach, but then they get out on the beach and after just an hour or two, they say they're getting tired. Bring a tent. He lives in Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
About half (51%, according to the book, which seems about right) of the questions answered in this book are original, and have never been posted on the xkcd what if? website (https://what-if.xkcd.com/).

Even though I'd already read the other 49%, I re-read them and was glad I did, as Munroe has added a few things here and there; plus, this stuff is just eminently re-readable. It's the perfect combination of irreverent, rigorous, technical, and fascinating. I look forward to every new "What If" (he posts them each Tuesday or Wednesday) and am always delighted to read the latest.

Even if you've read every "What if" ever posted to the website, this book is still for you - it's especially for you! This is a great way to enjoy older questions and answers over again, updated, and to share them with new people, and the new questions and answers - never featured on the website - are delightful; I won't spoil it for you, but my favorite has to be the answer to "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?"

If you have even a passing interest in science and ever enjoy daydreaming about the fantastic or the ridiculous, this book is for you. If you don't think that you enjoy those things, this book will prove to you that you do.

Also, this is a really great gift idea for basically anyone in your life who can read. Kids will love it, adults will love it (I'm ordering a copy for my dad's birthday), and they will be hooked from the first page (who hasn't wondered what would happen if the Earth suddenly stopped spinning?)

Gift season is coming up; thanks to this book my Christmas shopping will be a great deal easier. I don't usually write reviews, but I logged in and made an exception here. I cannot offer higher praise. Enjoy!
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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 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 way further over the top than the original question requires. These are the truly great ones.
Read more ›
13 Comments 306 of 341 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Hardcover
Product came with a bobcat in the box. 10/10, would buy again.
19 Comments 1,386 of 1,570 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I love the blog and was really looking forward to this book, but buying the kindle edition was a mistake. There are a lot of missing images, and many of them are also strangely enlarged or shrunk. I'll probably buy the hardcover edition later, anyone looking to buy this stay away from the kindle.
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Format: Hardcover
I've been a fan of the xkcd web comic for a few years now, and the weekly "what-if" installment is my favorite part of Mr Monroe's website. It is interesting, original and at times downright wacky (in a good way). And most important: It had heart. You could see Randall's passion pouring through most of the items, every week.

The book, on the other hand, just screams "lazy". The editing is poor, resulting in too many avoidable errors. Also little effort has been made to convert the web friendly format into book form. And there is very little new content. The whole thing gives me a feeling that someone - either Mr. Monroe himself or his publisher - just decided to take the (excellent) web content and dump it into book form, without much further thought. And even worse: It gives me the feeling that they allowed themselves to do a half-assed job, because they knew the fans will buy it anyway (and give it automatic five star reviews). I don't know if this is true or not, but that's the feeling I get.

Of-course, the raw content is still superb. But a book is much more than its raw content. Presentation matters. And dumping a superb website into book form does not a good book make. This is why, while I do adore Randall's web work, I cannot give this book 5 stars or even 4 stars in good conscience. You might say that I'm giving it 4-5 stars for the raw content and 1-2 stars for the the execution.

And I would like to end my review on a personal note:

I know this review is going to annoy many fans. But I ask you, as fellow xkcders, to be fair when you vote for or against my review. If you really think I'm wrong, feel free to downvote me. But don't do it just because I went against the crowd, okay?
5 Comments 179 of 221 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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