'Nerd royalty' has the answer to your question


An eccentric take on some of physics' and technology's trickiest conundrums. Reviewed by Bill Condie.


NON FICTION
What if?: Serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions
By Randall Munroe
John Murray (2014)
RP $32.99

Fans of Randall Munroe’s web comic xkcd will appreciate the description of him as “nerd royalty” on the cover of his new book. For those who are yet to become acquainted, it will make sense after a few minutes with this entertaining, eccentric work.

Physicist Munroe worked as roboticist at NASA’s Langley Research Centre, until reinventing himself as a cartoonist.

Munroe’s themes include computer science, technology, mathematics and science and his website quickly won a cult following.

The cartoons are free, Munroe makes a living selling xkcd merchandise (thousands of T-shirts a month, apparently). And this collection of his web comic series looks set to add to the cashflow.

In What if? Randall answers readers’ weird questions by explaining the science with a straight face. The results can be very funny, but also provide a vehicle for explaining some real science.

For example, the question “what would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth aeroplane above different solar system bodies?” leads to a comprehensive three-page answer which explains the atmospheres of the major planets and some of their moons.

Others include “What happens if you pitch a baseball at 90% the speed of light?” (nothing good is the short answer) and “How long could a nuclear submarine last in orbit?” (pretty well indefinitely, but you don’t want to be the crew).

And if you don’t enjoy reading it, be comforted by Munroe’s assurance that, if humans could digest cellulose, “eating this book would give you about 2,300 calories”.

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