ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.



March 2015



What If? By Randall Munroe

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

What If

I don’t think that I’ve laughed out loud at a book that wasn’t a straight up comedy memoir in a long time. Randall Munroe is the cartoonist behind xkcd. In this book, he takes on some pretty awesome questions that are utterly ridiculous (but still fun to think about) and sorts out the science. The tone kind of reminded me of my favorite fiction book this year, “The Martian.” There are a lot of calculations that I don’t fully understand, but he explains them well and with loads of humor.

Each response include some hilarious footnotes (seriously, there’s one that’s a somewhat obscure reference to the TV show Friends) and lots of his great cartoons. A sample question (and one of my favorites, because it involves maps) is ‘which US state is actually flown over the most?’ To answer this, Mr. Munroe looked at 10,000 flights and determined a state was flown over if a flight did not take off or land in the state, but crossed the state’s airspace. He also, for a little extra fun, calculated which airport is responsible for the most flights that cross that state. The answer to the question, by the way, is probably not what you’d guess it is.

The editing of this book is superb; some of the best comments appear as a surprise turn after flipping the page. And the questions are mostly really interesting; only a couple responses did I feel like skimming. Mr. Munroe also offers up examples of some of the more disturbing questions he’s received. He doesn’t answer these, but provides sometimes hilarious cartoon responses to them.

I read this book over a couple of days while travelling and think it’s mostly perfect as a travelling book. Each question only takes up three-five pages (and probably 20% of that is cartoon), so you can pick it up for ten minutes at a time. Really the only drawback for reading a physical version (as opposed to the ebook) is that it is currently in hardback and a slightly odd size – the height seems to match most hardcovers, but it is a bit wider. If you travel with a partner, I suggest bringing it as once you finish it your partner can pick it up and will likely enjoy it.

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