Randall Munroe – What If?

Randall Munroe, for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, is the man behind the ubiquitous xkcd webcomic, which I’ve mentioned here more times than is probably sensible.

While xkcd is probably known to everyone[1], it’s possible that not everyone has noticed Randall’s associated What if? project. Randall is an actual rocket scientist. Well, he used to work for NASA, so I think that does mean we can call him that, even if it’s not strictly accurate. And what with him being an actual scientist, people have been asking him difficult scientific questions. And a couple of years ago[2], he started answering them on his site. Once a week, he takes a question, no matter how strange, bizarre or absurd[3], and answers it in methodical detail. Often with equations, which must mean it’s right. And always with cartoons which illustrate, amplify and often subvert the text. If you like xkcd, you’ll enjoy those…

A tasteful collection of the What if? posts have now been assembled into a book, available in hardcover or Kindle forms. Unusually for me, I opted for the DTV[4] on the grounds that cartoons, unlike pure text, are still better on paper than Kindle. As a bonus, there’s fun stuff inside the dust jacket and on the endpapers that you’d never be able to appreciate in the non-DTV.

Regular Losing it readers will be delighted to know that Randall makes extensive use of footnotes[5], and hides some of the better jokes in them.

I won’t go into much detail about the content – most of it can be read on the What if? website, but I will mention a few highlights:

In a piece that talks about water freezing under pressure to form exotic forms of ice such as ice III, ice II and indeed ice IX, a footnote helpfully points out that the latter is “no relation”. No relation to what? Well, if you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle[6], you’ll know. And if you haven’t, it’s worth a look.

Questions you’ve always wanted to ask are answered, such as:

What if I jumped out of an airplane with a couple of tanks of helium and one huge, uninflated balloon? Then, while falling, I release the helium and fill the balloon. How long of a fall would I need in order for the balloon to slow me enough so I could land safely?

Come on, everyone must have wondered that at some point? No? Well, how about:

What if a glass of water was, all of a sudden, literally half empty?

Hint: depends which half.

Even more fun are the questions Randall doesn’t answer. Scattered through the book are “Weird (and worrying) questions from the What if? inbox”, which include such disturbing gems as:

What if everyone in Great Britain went to one of the coasts and started paddling? Could they move the island at all?


Assuming a relatively uniform resonant frequency in a passenger jet, how many cats, meowing at what resonant frequency of said jet, would be required to “bring it down”?

When I say he doesn’t answer them, these questions do get a cartoon response…

This book is enormous fun, and recommended to anyone who’s interested in science, general geekiness, cartoons or indeed anything else.

[1] Apart from those not paying attention, but they’re probably not reading this either
[2] Longer than I thought. Old brain is compressing time again.
[3] Well, let’s be honest, the odder the question, the better he seems to like it
[4] Dead Tree Version
[5] Like these