What if?

One of the more fascinating books published recently has as its premise a series of bizarre questions.


Press release photo

What if? by Randall Munroe probes deeply into the bizarre

How fast would a human have to run in order to be cut in half at the bellybutton by a cheese-cutting wire?      Could you build a jet pack using downward-firing machine guns?



Do not try any of this at home. The author of this book is a Internet Cartoonist, not a health or safety expert. He likes it when things catch fire or explode, which means he does not have your best interests in mind. The publisher and the author disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects resulting, directly or indirectly, from information contained in this book.


Ever have one of those “what if” questions—The kind of question that could never possibly be plausible, and yet makes you dying to know the answer anyway? Well, in Randall Munroe’s “what if?”, many of those absurd hypothetical questions are answered, with serious scientific answers.

Randall Munroe, the author and illustrator of “what if?” is a former NASA roboticist who left to draw comics full time. He created a website called xkcd, where, in his words, “In addition to serving as a Dear Abby for mad scientists – I draw xkcd, a stick-figure webcomic.” There, people can submit their wacky, implausible questions to be answered.

Eventually, he wrote “what if?”, a collection of the most popular questions on xkcd, plus some new, never-before-answered questions. Throughout the entire book he answers these with real scientific answers, which he goes to great lengths to get, along with xkcd comics, that not only illustrate his answers well, but also make you hilariously tickled with amusement.

To give some more perspective of what this disclaimer is referring to, other questions answered in this book are What if I could swim in a spent nuclear fuel pool?, Could you build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?, What would happen if someone’s DNA vanished?, How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?, If you call a random phone number and say “God bless you,” what are the chances that the person who answered just sneezed?, What if everyone who took the SAT guessed on every multiple-choice question, how many perfect scores would there be?, . The answers to these questions are equally preposterous, which really just adds to the humor.

Some of my favorite features of this book are the illustrations, created by Randall Munroe himself; they make one laugh like crazy. The cover features a cartoon of what would happen if a person tried to feed a tyrannosaurus rex to a giant squid. While the jacket cover features a detailed map of what the world would be like after a portal to Mars opened up at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, which would drain most of the oceans, the author’s page features a generic stick figure as the author’s profile.

Another feature of this book that many seem to love are the “Weird and Worrying Questions” pages. Throughout the book there are pages with some of the most weird and worrying questions the author receives on his website. He doesn’t answer them, but instead creates funny cartoons to emphasize their “weird and worrying-ness”. Many of my friends say those are their favorite parts of the book. Some of these weird and worrying questions are:


  • Would it be possible to get your teeth to such a cold temperature that they would shatter upon drinking a cup of coffee?
  • How many houses are burned down in the United States every year? What would be the easiest way to increase this number by a significant amount (say, at least 15%)?
  • Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself?
  • If people had wheels and could fly, how would we differentiate them from airplanes?


I love this book and would recommend it to anyone who likes humor, destruction, science, or is just plain curious. As seventh grader, Lydia Pedersen describes it, “It is undoubtedly the dumbest book I have ever read, but is so fascinatingly scientific and geeky, I love it.”