Rampant Geekery: "What If - Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions" by Randall Munroe
Published September 2nd 2014
I wasn’t familiar with the XKCD's web comic website. Now, I know better… I'm already a fan.
This book will be better appreciated if one has some kind of scientific background and a somewhat superficial understanding of Physics (at least a basic knowledge). A cursory reading of the book is not enough. If one does fulfill this two prerequisites, one must be prepared to have to look up quite a few things elsewhere. I think science geeks and general readers with an interest in scientific concepts won’t have any problem tackling it.
Science is the keyword here. I’ve always been a seeker of knowledge. I’ve always wanted to know what was going on beneath the surface of everyday things. That’s why I’m a big Feynman fan. As far as I can recall, I got the science bug by reading Feynman in high school. Feynman was always looking for answers to trivial and mundane things. He was also known for back-of-the-envelope calculations. They were also an important part of my science and engineering education. I started to get hooked on things that wouldn’t bother mere mortals. It made me see things in a different perspective. The answers to why everyday things happen must be scientific, ie, logical and accurate. In this book I didn’t find any kind of pop-science answers. Nothing left me unsatisfied. Instead what I got were explanations to (almost) everything under the sun.
This is not a textbook, by all means. It’s not a book for kids. It’s a fun book for grown-ups. It answers real questions that were put forth by real people. Some of the explanations require, at least to me, a sort of Gedankenexperiment, as Einstein would have put it.
This book is also not about facts. You’ll not find answers to questions like “Who invented this…?” or “What is a…?”. The fun comes from understanding, not from the collection of facts. That’s TV. Here Munroe wants to tackle physics. Not trivia, even though some of the questions made me laugh out loud (eg, “Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself?”). The world is a complex web of inter-related things, and nothing happens for a single reason. In physics, every answer uncovers new questions, and no explanations can ever be complete.
I’ll just give three teasers of what you’ll find in this book:
- “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?” (My favourite question);
- “What if a glass of water was, all of sudden, literally half empty?”;
- “Assuming a zero-gravity environment with an atmosphere identical to Earth's, how long would it take the friction of air to stop an arrow fired from a bow? Would it eventually come to a standstill and hover in midair?”
If the answer that Munroe gives to the above-mentioned questions won’t get you hooked on science forever, I don’t know what will.
“That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know, going in.”
Keats was in on the secret, and you should too, if you attempt reading this wonderful book.