Fun Scientific Exploration of Silly Questions

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 Pages

What if everyone actually had only one soulmate, a random person somewhere in the world? If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time, would it change color?  What if a glass of water was, all of a sudden, literally half empty?

These questions and many more are the basis for Randall Munroe’s new book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, is the creator of the popular and long running webcomic xkcd. His love of using math and science to solve seemingly absurd questions led him to create the blog What If? in 2012.  Munroe’s humorous approach to complicated scientific concepts makes them accessible to those without his scientific background. Like in his webcomic, Munroe uses funny stick figure illustrations to explain concepts.

The most frequently asked question that  Munroe explores is “What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?” Like many of the questions in What If?, this scenario seems innocent, but could have disastrous results.  The crowd would take up a space the size of Rhode Island, so Munroe proposes that in this scenario, they are actually in Rhode Island. At the stroke of noon, everyone jumps. Even though the jumping delivers quite a bit of energy to Earth, it is spread out over a large enough area that the split pulse of pressure dissipates with little effect. There would be a loud sound as everyone’s feet hit, but it would not last for very long. Now everyone in the world is left standing around in Rhode Island with little purpose. Someone pulls a cell phone out, and soon all cell networks would collapse as the other five billion cell phones users attempt to use their phones. Unattended machines in other places of the world start shutting down.  The airport in Rhode Island could potentially run at 500 percent capacity, still leaving billions stranded. The interstates out of Rhode Island would become entangled in the largest traffic jam of all time. Looting, violence, and chaos would likely erupt, demolishing global infrastructure. Though life on Earth would be greatly affected, the effect on the Earth itself and its orbit would be minimal.

The questions in What If? cover a variety of topics, but are consistently entertaining. Knowledge of physics or math concepts is not necessary to understand or enjoy the explanations.   A table of contents allows readers to find specific questions that they might have pondered. Munroe offers a list of references for each question for the skeptical reader.  For readers still curious after finishing the book, the What If? blog is still updating. What If? is a fun exploration of science, math, and those questions that make us wonder “What If…?”

Elizabeth Weislak works in the children’s department of the Mebane Public Library. She may be reached at eweislak@alamancelibraries.org or 919-563-6431.