what if – Randall Munroe: Book Review

This book was The Hero’s birthday present last year. I’m not sure how much of it he’s read but the book is definitely one of my favourites now ūüôā I have to confess, I’ve been coveting the book since the author announced it and The Hero’s birthday was the perfect excuse to own a copy (cue evil laugh)… All righty then, let’s get to the review!

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Have you ever prepped for an¬†interview for a consulting job or any other sort of pretentious job requiring¬†skills to compute answers to weird questions? Have you ever wondered why manholes and their covers are round or¬†how many golf balls you can fit in 747? If you have, then as this PhD comic suggests, you probably know¬†what kind of training it takes to answer these questions…

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What if? does not deal with such piddly stuff. It gets straight to the tough questions. Can you hide from supersonic winds in Finland? What if you lost all your DNA? What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element? What would happen if you threw a baseball at 90% of the speed of light?¬†The analysis is fascinating and the answers are downright scary.¬†We only¬†get to Lithium (3) before things start to explode¬†and Fluorine (9) before our lungs start to corrode. And that’s much safer than¬†the mushroom cloud caused by¬†the baseball!

This book¬†makes science fun¬†again. When you take the laws of physics and apply them to all these weird and wonderful scenarios, you see an alternate world that you never imagined was possible. For those of us not blessed with an intuitive understanding of mathematics (looking at you Physics mAmi, et all), this book is an inspiration. Sure, there’s beauty in mathematical theorems and you can find some sort of God and/or perfection and/or nirvana in pure mathematics but not all of us get it. For us¬†mere mortals this book is a reminder of what we can do with math.¬†How math and science are the only tools we have to predict with some (or complete) certainty the outcomes of some events.¬†Isn’t it amazing?

Everyone should read this book. It’s not a book about science or problem solving. It’s about the ability to ask questions and imagine a different reality. It’s a book about how you only need¬†imagination and a bit of science to¬†make sense of¬†the world around you. That’s what makes this book so exciting. Well, that and the awesome comics.

Overall rating: a 4.999999999 star book for geeks (because someone out there is likely to nitpick and find an error) and perhaps 3.5 for non-geeks who have no interest in reading about the philosophy behind units of measurement which makes up the preface of the book.

Sharing a video of the author’s TED talk about his Google Datacenter what if. Enjoy!

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