What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is a book I picked up at Waterstones in Norwich several years ago now. I did look in it a couple of times when I was considering the use of vacuum cleaners in space for my asteroid miners, but I always wanted to read it properly!

what if?

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

by Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe left NASA in 2005 to start up his hugely popular site XKCD ‘a web comic of romance, sarcasm, math and language’ which offers a witty take on the world of science and geeks. It now has 600,000 to a million page hits daily. Every now and then, Munroe would get emails asking him to arbitrate a science debate. ‘My friend and I were arguing about what would happen if a bullet got struck by lightning, and we agreed that you should resolve it . . . ‘ He liked these questions so much that he started up What If

If your cells suddenly lost the power to divide, how long would you survive?

How dangerous is it, really, to be in a swimming pool in a thunderstorm?

If we hooked turbines to people exercising in gyms, how much power could we produce?

What if everyone only had one soulmate?

When (if ever) did the sun go down on the British empire? 

How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?

What would happen if the moon went away?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, studded with memorable cartoons and infographics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. Far more than a book for geeks, WHAT IF: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions explains the laws of science in operation in a way that every intelligent reader will enjoy and feel much the smarter for having read. [goodreads]

My Review

This is a book that every science fiction writer should read (even former astronauts). It takes a simple, probably absurd question, and applies a technique called thought experiment to it, carrying it through to its logical conclusion. And because the author is a NASA researcher turned full-time cartoonist, the answer comes out complete with hilarity and illustrations.

For example, maybe you have never thought, nor cared, how safe it is to swim in a nuclear reactor pool. These pools of nice clean water keep the uranium rods cool so they don’t go … well, boom. It turns out that the upper levels of the pool are probably the cleanest, safest water you’ve ever swum in, and just the right temperature if you don’t mind it warm (cooler than a hot-tub). Just don’t dive down to the rods. And if you tried to swim in nuclear reactor pool, you’d probably be shot by security before you could dive in.

This sort of thing had me laughing out loud, over and over. Yes, some questions are dafter or less interesting than others. But some look at situations from a view I hadn’t done before, and I learned interesting stuff. Like the geological history of Manhattan. My paleo-geology is pretty well limited to the British Isles.

I recommend it to science fiction authors because it gives you a stimulus to explore some of those what if? moments in your future (or past) world. How good is your solution? Does applying current laws of physics (and others) help drive the plot or create a more interesting, fuller world? And how weird can you be before becoming absurd?

The only thing wrong with this book (paperback) is that the font for the answers is too small. Solution — magnifying glass, but not out in the sun 🙂

Book Review | What If? Serious Scientific Answers …
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2 thoughts on “Book Review | What If? Serious Scientific Answers …

  • 18 February, 2024 at 2:28 pm

    I think this book is on my shelf. If not this, something similar. I should pull it and read it!


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