This is the story about how I read Randall Munro's What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, which is a book compilation of entries to Munro's blog xkcd.com, renown for science, humor, and stick figure doodles.
But first, some autobiographical backstory. The way I get most of my library books is randomized: every month my library puts a list of “Don’t Miss” new additions on their online catalog. I go through this list, checking boxes next to the titles that look even remotely of interest to me, and then hit “Add to My Lists.” This goes into a queue of books that I eventually want to check out. As time goes on, then, I gradually put books on hold—I usually have about 10-20 books checked out, and pretty steadily have 15 on hold. Some items take longer than others to reach me, so that by the time I am at the checkout counter of the library and receive my holds, I might have forgotten why I wanted a certain item to begin with.
The most egregious items that make me wait until I am out of the mood to read them are audiobooks. I like audiobooks because my commute to work is long and often hectic, and if I get stuck in traffic I’m at least accomplishing something by chipping away at my TBR pile. Yet for some reason I have to be in the right state of mind to actually start audiobooks. Once I am in that mood, I get into a rhythm of consistency with them and get through them quite swiftly. However, when I got the audiobook What If? I admit it must have sat in my TBR at least a month, forcing me to renew it at the library before even starting it.
Why was I unenthused about starting this book? You see, I’d previously gotten several books written in a genre I’ll dub “pop science” (even though I’m not sure if that’s an actual thing; if it’s not and I just coined the phrase, patent pending!) and was sadly disappointed. Geek Physics: Surprising Answers to the World's Most Interesting Questions, for example, drove me nuts.* What is it with Rhett Allain and Angry Birds, anyway? Why is there an inordinate and unfair amount of Star Wars questions in this book as opposed to Star Trek, Star Gate, Farscape, Doctor Who, or Firefly? And why does he keep starting his hypothetical scenarios with demanding that I make wild assumptions such as “pretend that Lex Luthor is a slinky.”** What does that have to do with anything? Why a slinky, anyway? These analogies seem so arbitrary and do nothing to help me understand the more complex physics end of the question.
But What If is exactly what I’d hoped Geek Physics would be. What if someone created a jetpack out of machine guns? What if I suddenly had all my DNA removed from my body? What if our oceans were drained out to the planet Mars? What if you were able to collect the actual elements on the Periodic Table? What if one were to try to cook their steak by dropping it from a high altitude so that entering the earth’s atmosphere would make it heat up like a meteorite or all those UFOs that nobody wants to admit have crashed on earth? These are the important questions in my life that I need answered.
This is also the kind of book that I can see most “non-readers”*** reading. Even if someone does not consider themselves scientifically curious usually likes to think over idle theories of whether the earth could be forced off its orbit by everyone on earth gathering on one side of the planet and then jumping in unison. Also, because this book began as a blog, the chapters are fairly short and “bite-sized” for those who don’t have a lot of spare time to devote to longer chapters.****
I listened to the audiobook, meaning I missed all the stick figure illustrations that are apparently a trademark of the xkcd blog. However this did afford me a chance to listen to Wil Wheaton’s reading, which was excellent.***** It wasn’t even (very) hard to understand the mathematical formulae that was read aloud. Which, coming from me, is saying a lot.
*Possibly because it was Star Wars saturated and thus did not have an ample amount of Jean -Luc Picard related content.
** Of course I'm making up this specific example. The real scenarios were MUCH more ludicrous.
***Readers in denial, in my opinion.
****I’m lookin’ at you, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
*****And made me almost forgive him for making my favorite captain look like a fool by being a teen wunderkind always saving the Enterprise. Almost.