Thursday, April 23, 2015

#20 [2015/CBR7] "What If?" by Randall Munroe

My interest in science and space has grown exponentially from practically non-existent to almost moderate thanks to The Martian, and now, What if?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (2014) by Randall Monroe. Reading detailed, scientific answers with lots of math and equations that I don't understand isn't normally my thing. So I was afraid when I picked up What if? that it might turn into a plod. Fortunately Munroe exceeded my expectations, entertaining me throughout and even teaching me a thing or two.

The key to this book is buried in the rather clear description printed in the title: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. I hadn't heard of Randall Monroe before reading this book, but according to the book cover, he is a former NASA roboticist and popular blogger. Apparently about half the questions in this book are popular questions from his blog while the other half are new. Following are examples of some of Munroe's absurd questions.

What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person? Were they lonely?

Which U.S. state is actually flown over the most?

If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?

How long could a nuclear submarine last in orbit?

What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?

How much force power can Yoda output?

And here are the reasons I found this book entertaining and enlightening:
-The questions and answers are short. If I hit a question that didn't capture my interest or felt like I was drowning in unintelligible math, I knew it would be over soon.

-The comics (this book is filled with fantastic hand-drawn comics and illustrations) and irreverent approach to explaining the world provided a good balance with real discussion of  physics and math.

-Every once in a while, Munroe hits you with an insightful, almost philosophical, view of the world.

-Munroe's obvious humor and intelligence reminded me of the main character of The Martian.

-And finally, Munroe sparked in me an interest in space and an urge to better understand how the world works. In fact, I've never been so interested in physics since struggling through my physics class in high school. Actually, I think the problem in high school is that I wasn't interested in physics. If only Munroe had been my teacher! This was a good book; I'd recommend it.

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