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Book Club: “What If?” by Randall Munroe

Posted on : 15-10-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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XKCD cartoon depicting odds of surviving a lightning strike

Scientific analysis of real-life problems

Our next book is “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe.

Munroe supplies scientific, in many cases, mathematical answers to the deepest, darkest questions one can ask. Some are very unpleasant, such as what would happen if the Earth suddenly stopped rotating? (Scientists at the South Pole and people in coal mines would probably survive, for a while.) What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball thrown at .9 c? (Not good for either the batter or the pitcher, not to mention the catcher, umpire, ball park and the city.) What would happen if you gathered a mole of moles? (Not good for moles in the middle, since they would form a sphere larger than the Moon.) Some answers are surprisingly benign, such as could you survive swimming in a spent nuclear fuel pool? (You’d be fine, as long as you didn’t dive too deep or pick up any random objects lying at the bottom.) Or what would happen if everyone stood near each other and jumped at the same time? (Basically, nothing, because the Earth out-masses us by 12 orders of magnitude. Except we would take up an area the size of Rhode Island, and T F Green Airport would be overwhelmed for thousands of years as everyone tried to return home afterwards, and we’d mostly starve to death as the world plunged into chaos and anarchy.)

Then there are the scary questions. They all seem to have the proviso that the person asking the question really, really needs to know the answer by Friday.

The book is fun and quick to read, and is copiously illustrated with Munroe’s surprisingly evocative stick-figure drawings. I got the Kindle version, which seems to freak out my Kindle occasionally. (It’s rebooted at least 3 times, and has a few formatting problems, mostly connected with the footnotes. Paging forward and back seems to fix most of the issues.) I wish had purchased a hard-copy version, as it would make an ideal bathroom book.

Please join us to discuss this book on Saturday, October 25 at 3 PM in our usual meeting place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge. Bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack to share. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page. Remember, the first gratuitous Star Trek reference always receives a complimentary phaser blast. (Set to stun unless I remember to put new batteries in my phaser.)

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (October 26) at the Skepchick Book Club. Drop by and make all those insightful comments you forgot to make at the meeting, or if you live too far away to attend in person. (But it’s much more fun to be there!)