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What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

4.5 55
by Randall Munroe

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From the creator of the wildly popular webcomic xkcd, hilarious and informative answers to important questions you probably never thought to ask

Millions of people visit xkcd.com each week to read Randall Munroe’s iconic webcomic. His stick-figure drawings about science, technology, language, and love have an enormous, dedicated following, as do


From the creator of the wildly popular webcomic xkcd, hilarious and informative answers to important questions you probably never thought to ask

Millions of people visit xkcd.com each week to read Randall Munroe’s iconic webcomic. His stick-figure drawings about science, technology, language, and love have an enormous, dedicated following, as do his deeply researched answers to his fans’ strangest questions.

The queries he receives range from merely odd to downright diabolical:

• What if I took a swim in a spent-nuclear-fuel pool?

• Could you build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?

• What if a Richter 15 earthquake hit New York City?

• Are fire tornadoes possible?

His responses are masterpieces of clarity and wit, gleefully and accurately explaining everything from the relativistic effects of a baseball pitched at near the speed of light to the many horrible ways you could die while building a periodic table out of all the actual elements.

The book features new and never-before-answered questions, along with the most popular answers from the xkcd website. What If? is an informative feast for xkcd fans and anyone who loves to ponder the hypothetical.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"What If? maintains a delightfully free-wheeling tone throughout, especially  when complicated calculations lead to whimsical results...Despite all the hard facts and gigantic numbers, it never feels like a textbook—and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy it. A" —Entertainment Weekly
"Catchy and approachable...There's plenty of scientific rigor behind his elaborate explanations but he punctuates them with sly humor and winningly primitive cartoon diagrams...A cut above so many popular science and technology books."—NPR.org

"Consistently fascinating and entertaining...Munroe leavens the hard science with whimsical touches...An illuminating handbook of methods of reasoning."—Wall Street Journal
"It’s fun to watch as Munroe tackles each question and examines every possible complication with nerdy and methodical aplomb, his distinctive scribblings providing clever running commentary of peanut-gallery jokes as his train of thought (sometimes) happily derails. The delightfully demented ‘What If?’ is the most fun you can have with math and science, short of becoming your own evil genius...We feel the tug of Munroe’s playful yet existentially-tinged worldview, and all that geek logic and number-crunching becomes unexpectedly poignant."—Boston Globe

“Munroe has hit on a wonderful form of science and engineering communication that can do so much—extolling the value of analytical thinking, examining data, and doing back-of-the-envelope calculations—while entertaining readers at the same time… an incredibly fun book with quirky, hand-drawn pictures.” —American Scientist
"[What If?] has solved my annual birthday-present and holiday-gift dilemmas for a large group of people...What makes Munroe's work so fantastic is a combination of two elements: his commitment to trying to answer even the weirdest question with solid science, and his undeniable sense of humor." —Huffington Post
"Munroe takes inane, useless and often quite pointless questions asked by real humans (mostly sent to him through his website), and turns them into beautiful expositions on the impossible that illuminate the furthest reaches, almost to the limits, of the modern sciences..The answers are all illustrated with XKCD’s trademark stick figures...and these are eminently approachable." —Newsweek
"What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions includes old favorites, new inquiries and the mix of expert research and accessible wit that has made Munroe a favorite among both geeks and laymen."—TIME
"Loaded with the same dry wit and blank-faced stick figures that populate xkcd, What If? is that rare book that will have you laughing as you learn just how a mass extinction might unfold."—Discover

"Wide-ranging and strangely poignant...This book is tons of fun...Munroe’s spiffy essays do tend to resemble the sort of lectures that cool professors give on the first day of class...It’s quality entertainment."—Washington Independent Review of Books
“Munroe's brilliant What-If? column—which features scientifically rigorous, utterly absurd answers to ridiculous hypotheticals—has been on the bestseller lists since it was announced in March. Today, it hits shelves and: It. Is. A. Triumph.” —BoingBoing
"What If? is a fast, engrossing read…The charm of What If? lies in the ease Munroe has jumping past intensely interesting conclusions and onto his next thought, tangent, or consequence. It’s as if Munroe is a unseen stage technician pulling back the curtain — the answers were always there, we just needed someone who knew how to show us. Even he seems surprised at what he finds.” – Nerdist 

"Those who enjoyed the irreverent style of Allie Brosh’s best-selling memoir, Hyperbole and a Half, will enjoy Munroe’s serious and silly musings on everything from science to romance."—Library Journal
Library Journal
Have you ever wondered at what point in history there were too many English-language books to read in one lifetime? Or what would happen to the Earth if the Sun didn't exist? Munroe has your answers. A former NASA roboticist, the author launched the weblog xkcd.com, which purposely has no phonetic pronunciation, in 2005. The blog's blend of math and science, sarcasm, and stick-figure drawings has gained a loyal following. (His etching of someone who reads a book on juggling, tries to juggle, fails, and immediately trashes the book is especially poignant.) In 2012, Munroe started answering reader-submitted hypotheticals using Internet research along with his own knowledge. That series, "What If," is the focus of this witty nonfiction debut, which features a plethora of new black-and-white cartoons. VERDICT Those who enjoyed the irreverent style of Allie Brosh's best-selling memoir, Hyperbole and a Half, will enjoy Munroe's serious and silly musings on everything from science to romance. One question submitted to his blog: "If all digital data were stored on punch cards, how big would Google's data warehouse be?" was even answered by the search-engine behemoth. The response, "No comment."—Stephanie Sendaula, Library Journal

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
7.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

Meet the Author

Randall Munroe  is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller What If?, the science question-and-answer blog What If, and the popular webcomic xkcd.  A former NASA roboticist, he left the agency in 2006 to draw comics on the Internet full-time, supporting himself through the sale of xkcd t-shirts, prints, posters, and books. He likes candlelight dinners and long walks on the beach. Very long walks. Lots of people say they like long walks on the beach, but then they get out on the beach and after just an hour or two, they say they’re getting tired. Bring a tent. He lives in Massachusetts.

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What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 55 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I purchased this for my 12 year old son for Christmas because he's always been interested in science, and he's always spouting off random scientific facts, some true and some just "what ifs." By the day after Christmas, he was 3/4 of the way done with it. I haven't had a chance to read any of it myself, but if it can keep a 12 year old boy - one who also received video games as gifts - interested in reading, it deserves the 5 stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Randall has an amazing mind, and this book should be the textbook for back-of-a-napkin theories and estimates.  He teaches unit conversion, Fermi estimation, basic research principles, and a variety of other useful skills.  These are the skills that kids today need, and they are presented in a unique and hilarious format.  
fintzu More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book with his usual wit, insight and downright brilliance. There was a bit too much repeated from the website though - I was hoping for a little more new material for the book. But all the same, it's a fabulous read, everyone will enjoy this, and I do plan on buying another copy or two as gifts, so please, don't think I'm being a downer on this title. 4.5 stars for sure!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an AMAZING book. It is fun to read and teaches you something, sort of. It is also a fun book to give to people that you just don't know what to give them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a mechanical engineer, philosopher and curator of absurdly unanswered questions about everything. This book, being exactly what it proposes to be, is fantastic. I enjoyed every answer and found the approach to answering such things as have been asked to be evident of a person who shares my curiosity of and love for the infinitum of life. I wish the book was of greater volume.
YoungMensanBookParade More than 1 year ago
Randall Munroe, a former NASA scientist and current creator of the comic XKCD, has been asked so many wacky and absurd questions on his website that he decided to answer them with factual scientific answers in What If?. What If? has the perfect humor to science ratio. It will make you laugh out loud while being stimulated intellectually in the process. Randall Munroe, a talented cartoonist by heart, added many entertaining illustrations to demonstrate the “realistic” effects of the answers to the posed questions. Some of these questions include using a machine gun as a jetpack (bad idea), creating a 3-D periodic table with real cubes of the elements (very bad idea), and draining the oceans (extremely bad idea!!). Needless to say don’t try these experiments at home, but the answers are spectacular and scientifically correct! Although there are not specific chapters, segments of the book are separated by pages of questions that are too weird or worrying to earn a specific answer such as the logistical anomalies that would occur when creating an army of apes and how long it would take a Venus flytrap to “de-juice” a person. Yes, you read that correctly. I highly recommend What If? to readers with a love of science and comics. If you have ever wondered what the weight of a mole of moles (those dirt loving creatures) is, this is the book for you! Reviewed by Alexander H, age 13, Mid-American Mensa
schoenbc1 More than 1 year ago
Randall Munroe's XKCD is often one of the major highlight's of my day.  It's the combination of his  "interesting" brand of humor (thank goodness there are other people out there that don't take the straight line to the end of the 'joke'!) and the awe I feel at his scope of knowledge about things I  always wanted to learn and understand, but, didn't, couldn't.   I don't always get the science, but his pieces almost always make me curious enough to follow-up and try to get at least a basic-level understanding of "what the heck" he is talking about. I still don't always get the joke or point, but I've certainly learned something.  I'm in awe of his depth and breadth of knowledge, his ability to convey that in simple line drawings, and his occasional, but stunning overview of our world and universe.  He is certainly close to, if not on top of people I'd most like to meet.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hilarious scientifically correct answers to questions I've always wondered about but never asked.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Munroe has had to match high expectations he set forth with xkcd and his What If? articles posted there. He mas met and exceeded those expectations.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Munroe is a great blend of funny, smart, and creative.  Buy the book, read the comic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
get this now
DylanReedIsGreat 2 days ago
What If?, by Randall Munroe, a former NASA scientist and current creator of the comic XKCD , is an extremely whimsical book with a perfect balance of humor and science. What If? is sure to entice you with its spectacular questions, such as “What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element.” This book will stimulate your mind in many ways. What If? is a book for all ages. Its genre is a bit of whimsical science fiction, with many non-fiction elements. It has an objective point of view and includes every intricate fact about the question. Some of it is a little hard to understand, but can be interpreted through context clues. There are many footnotes for readers who cannot understand some words. This is one of the best books I have ever read, and I would read it again multiple times! It kept me hooked with every story, and never disappointed. Usually, the author’s answers to the questions are extremely unrealistic, and there are many hypotheticals throughout the book. A lot of the stories have not so happy endings, yet every story is very entertaining. One of my favorite questions from What if? is “If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?”, Munroe answers this question first by explaining that due to the size of the planet, the gravity would change significantly with height, and if you were to run off of a ramp and jump off the asteroid, you would go into orbit at around jogging speed, and explains how if you can’t dunk a basketball on earth, you probably can’t jump high enough to escape one of these asteroid’s orbits. I enjoy this question because instead of going straight into the facts, Munroe jokes around and talks about going into the asteroid’s orbit and basketball, and ends his answer with a humorous depiction of The Little Prince Dunking a basketball, with the caption “Cleveland-area fans of French children’s literature were disappointed by the Prince’s decision to sign with the Miami Heat.” I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants a good laugh, or wants to fill their mind with interesting yet spectacularly useless knowledge. It’s whimsical nature appeals to anyone and almost everyone, and paired with its scientific and humorous factors, What If? is a truly amazing book.
Anonymous 4 months ago
Anonymous 6 months ago
I am holding the actual hardcopy book right now and pondering about how to make a global windstorm
Anonymous 6 months ago
What If by Randall Munroe is a nonfiction book that answers random scientific question with actual facts and proof. This book is highly recommended as it is very interesting. When the author answers the questions they use a humor tone behind the facts that makes the reading a lot more interesting. The way the author teaches the reader about the absurd questions and logically answers them is a way that if it was used in classrooms would entrigue more students to pay attention and learn the content. The main people who would read this book and highly enjoy it are those that like knowing random facts, like funny reads that are also informative and people who want an easy read but have a curiosity for science. This book would not turn into a good movie because it jumps around too much from topic to topic and would be really hard to follow. For the most part this book is best used as an informative piece. Overall What If is a really good book to pick up pieces of information and give a new perspective to scientific questions. The book doesn’t have a general flow but is a really good read, and is highly recommended for the curious mind.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You will learn oddly entertaining and interesting facts you can use to confuse and confound your family and friends. ~*~LEB~*~
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good book altogether. One line in the ebook version has very jumbled and impossible to read text. Is there a fix for this? It occurs on page 168(mobile) in the second page of the speed bump chapter. Will give five stars if this can be fixed or i can be reimbursed somehow.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Accessible to people of any age, truly a great work.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Have you ever heard some talking science or statistics at you, and something they said got the cogs in your head? Maybe like how powerful supernova are or how many Lego bricks are made each year? If you are the sort that lay in bed when you should be sleeping and instead ponder something that won't happen then this could be the best book for you. It will certainly not help your sleeping problem but reading is more fun anyway.
literarynerd More than 1 year ago
My father-in-law is always saying, "I wonder ..." This book was perfect for him. Even though he already has lots of books to read, he's thrilled to read this and find the answers to so many curious questions. This really was a perfect gift for the guy who has pretty much everything.
Kristina_Osborne14 More than 1 year ago
The novel, “What If’ by Randall Munroe, explained certain questions that have gone unanswered to many people. Some questions that Munroe talked about were: What would happen is the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning but the atmosphere retained its velocity, what if I took a swim in a typical spent Nuclear fuel pool, and if every human somehow disappeared from the face of the earth, how long would it be before the last artificial light source would go out? In order to help explain these questions, the author drew pictures and diagrams. These pictures and diagrams put “big words” into meaning so they were more understandable. My favorite part about the book was how he drew pictures to explain the “What Ifs” of the novel. I feel that this novel would not be a good read for younger children. I feel this because I think the vocabulary is to strong and most children wouldn’t understand what he was talking. There were some areas that I didn’t even know was real or possible. Although there were areas I didn’t quite understand, the idea and thought behind the novel greatly showed. I felt the eagerness to learn more about the “What Ifs” as if the author was talking to me in person. I highly recommend this book if you are one of those people that like to question things. This novel allows you to look at things in a scientific point of view while having comedy through the drawings as you read. I don’t recommend it for children but I do recommend it for young adults. I rate this book a 7 out of 10.