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What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions Hardcover – September 2, 2014
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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
“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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Some of the questions answered here are on the website, but that shouldn't stop you from buying this book. If you don't appreciate the effort to research the gravitational force of an apple (either the fruit or the electronic gadget), you may not fully appreciate this book. However, if you get a kick out of nerdy minutia (and know what minutia means), this is DEFINITELY the book for you.
Will any of this new knowledge save you, or your loved ones? Probably not. However, you can have the satisfaction knowing that you have researched what the earth would look like if all the water drained down the Mariana Trench. And have cute stick-figure drawings to show people, in case they, too, want to know this information.
* What would happen if a pitcher threw a baseball at close to the speed of light? (a massive explosion)
* What if you had a bullet with the density of a neutron star? (it'd sink well into the earth, or if well-supported it would be near-impossible to touch it because of its local gravitational effects -- at least not without the blood vessels in your fingers rupturing and your blood pooling into a distorted sphere around it)
* What would happen if all your DNA suddenly, just, weren't there? (you probably would die as if you had undergone severe chemotherapy, or eaten one of the most toxic mushrooms in the world)
If you're on the fence about this book, you can read a fair bit of it on the original What If? site. That should give you enough of the flavor to know whether you should pick it up yourself. But you'll have to buy the book for some of its totally-new questions and answers (and to enjoy some of the loonier submitted questions, interspersed within the book for comic relief), one of which coincidentally was submitted by my current roommate. :-) (Mini-disclosure!)
Having read the blog and been entertained by it, and having plenty of other things to read, I wasn't in a rush to pick this up, so I waited for it to be on sale. If it's on sale when you're looking at it, definitely pick it up. Otherwise, I'd say pick it up whenever you need a palate cleanser.