Upon hearing that Randall Munroe, NASA roboticist turned webcomic all-star, is writing a collection of “What If?” columns, a number of you will immediately make plans to buy the book. Don’t worry, you’ll love it. But this review is for the rest of you, who are curious if a bit confused.
Munroe draws the extremely popular webcomic xkcd. You may think you’ve never seen it, but pull it up online and you might well exclaim, “Oh, THAT guy!” (At least, that was my response). What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions brings Munroe’s stick figures and low-key hilarity to a formidable task: answering reader-submitted questions like, how many arrows would it take to blot out the sun like in the movie 300? Or, what would happen if everyone on Earth crowded into the same space and jumped together, landing at the same time? (Answers: It’s complicated; and not much, but the traffic jam when everyone tried to go home would be our undoing). The book includes both new questions and some favorites from the website, including a puzzler about whether each of us has a soul mate.
As the book’s subtitle indicates, Munroe uses real science to get to his answers, many of which are terrifying (do NOT try to collect all the elements in the Periodic Table), but his drawings leaven the prospect of total annihilation.
However you approach What If?, you’ll end up someplace different after reading it. I went from enjoying the humor to wanting to learn and understand more (while still laughing a lot). The perfect book for someone with insatiable curiosity, What If? is funny and fascinating in equal measure.
This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.