Book review: What If?

Although I am a fan of the xkcd comics (I know, big shock right?) I don’t think I would ever have bought Randall Munroe’s book for myself. The comics are great but they’re pithy. A perfect coffee break distraction before going on with your day. I’d never read any of his “What If” stuff on his site because there wasn’t a neat point in my day into which that would slot. I wouldn’t have bought the book for myself because, since I am a scientist, I don’t feel the strong need to read much pop-sci.


What if by Randall Munroe

I think it’s fantastic that people write it and it doesn’t wonderful things for engagement but if I need to know some science I’ll go to academic journals or maybe a textbook (or quite possibly knock on one of my colleague’s office doors and offer them a coffee). Hence, What If was never on my wish list. So I’m quite lucky that a copy ended up in my hands anyway, in return for judging the Glasgow heats for FameLab last year.


You know what? It was a treat. I expected to enjoy it but I never would have expected to laugh out loud (embarrassingly, in public) quite as often as I did while reading it. It’s no secret that Munroe is funny but being funny while explaining some potentially quite challenging scientific concepts is a rare gift.

For those not familiar, Munroe invites people to submit ridiculous questions via his site. He then attempts to answer these questions using real, scientific concepts. The results are often surprising and, while there must be some pruning of the less interesting questions and answers, they are also genuinely fascinating.

While the book leans heavily in the direction of the physical sciences (Munroe’s degree was in physics and he was a computer scientist and roboticist for NASA before he was a full-time cartoonist) it does also branch out into other areas. He discussed physics topics that I am rusty on, chemistry topics I dimly remembered learning a little about in high school and biology topics I couldn’t say with confidence I’d ever read about before. So while I am, yes, a scientist, and while I could have gone straight to Google Scholar for this stuff, I learned new things and in a much more fun way.

That, I suppose, is exactly what a pop-sci book should be able to do. It should be able to teach anyone, at any level, something they didn’t already know. It should make them smile when they learn it. When I was done with my copy I gave it to my mum, a woman who’s intelligence is regularly underestimated because of her blonde hair and whimsical sense of humour, but who once asked me “could there be people living on the Sun?” I think when she’s done I should encourage her to submit a few questions to see if any of them take Munroe’s interest.

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