Serious answers to absurd hypotheticals
- Full title: What if? Serious Scientific answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
- Author: Randall Munroe (of xkcd fame)
- Year: 2014
- ISBN-10: 9780544272996
- ISBN-13: 9780544456860
- Amazon rating at the moment of writing this review: 4.5 out of 5 (530 reviews)
What If?... is a book based on the blog of the same name by webcomic author Randall Munroe, both of which have the same simple premise: to give detailed, scientific answers to questions sent by readers.
The book contains several chapters (questions) that aren't present in the blog.
From What if?'s feature in The New Yorker:
(...) a team led by the Columbia University neuroscientist Jacqueline Gottlieb lent further support to that structure by adding both neural and eye-movement data to the mix. Gottlieb and her colleagues concluded that when novelty, surprise, uncertainty, and randomness (the basic equivalent, in their formulation, of incongruity) come together in the presence of an information gap, our motivation systems jump into high gear and we begin to search more actively for new information.
Munroe’s absurd “what if”s combine these elements to maximum effect. For one, the question format helps to inspire interest, because questions are by nature uncertain--they inherently create an information gap. And hypothetical questions, in particular, are designed to be novel and incongruous, creating juxtapositions that don’t exist in the real world.
We have heard for a long time (from "experts") that education needs to be improved and that one possible improvement is to "make" education "fun"".
Now, in the larger context of (science-) education in a society with an overflow of information, we need to re-think a lot of concepts, like "what do we mean by education?" "What about fun?" Moreover, in a world where more people have access to knowledge via MOOCs, what is the role of the school? Of the teacher?
I won't claim to have a definite answer on these questions, but Munroe's book gives interesting points of view on this discussion. Sure, the contents of the book can and are easily described in the title, but its implications can go a lot beyond that, from the mere formulation of questions that may or may not be silly to the actual process of obtaining an answer and the narrative of the journey itself.
Some questions answered in the book
- What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?
- What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?
- If every human somehow simply disappeared from the face of the Earth, how long would it be before the last artificial light source would go out?
- If my printer could literally print out money, would it have that big an effect on the world?
- How much Force power can Yoda output?
- If two immortal people were placed on opposite sides of an uninhabited Earthlike planet, how long would it take them to find each other? 100,000 years? 1,000,000 years? 100,000,000,000 years?
What do you think, Andy?
If you're here only for a simple recommendation, my final answer is yes!. The book is funny. Munroe made a great selection of questions that captivate you from the moment you read them. Then, if you have followed the blog, will be expecting some kind of amusing or funny history that will frame the actual answer. If the above questions somehow piqued your curiosity, then you will very likely like this book.
With that out of the way, I'll write what I think about it. Now comes a bit of a rant. If you're not interested just stop reading now, you're done.
Allow me to analyze some of the individual components of the book. First come the questions. As the title clearly says, they all are based on some kind of "impossible" premise. They all rest on impossible conditions, aim for impossible goals or are otherwise drawing from impossible sources.
Asking an interesting question is perhaps the most important step in the journey of discovery of the unknown (and I will risk myself and say that this is true for both sciences and art). An interesting question drives the brain forward with a specific purpose.
I firmly believe that a good fraction of all academic research nowadays is driven forwards by research valued only in terms of its direct usefulness. The answer, and not the question, is the main incentive. If the answer can bring a new technology, it gets funds. This is good in an economical kind of way, but it's not a good way of convincing the young ones that the sciences are an option in life, much less an interesting one.
What if?... is rooted on questions that might easily be dismissed as silly, unimportant and inconsequential, but not uninteresting. This is one of the book's greatest strengths. If we learned something from the Mythbusters (and we learned a lot from them) is that we like to explore the unknown in a very hands-on way. Even though I was one of the "brainy" guys in school, I have to admit that getting excited with scientific revelations on a blackboard is something that only happens to a few. Not necessarily the smartest or more intelligent, but those who can "see" and understand that level of abstract thought.
The Western model of education somehow teaches us that only us, the few who understand things directly on a blackboard, are the only ones worthy of being called "intelligent" and/or "smart", but without any real connotation behind it. Moreover, it rests on the gross (and incorrect) assumption that we all learn in the same way (we don't).
What if? quickly dismisses the idea that people are divided in "smart people" and "people not interested in science". The questions always pose an interesting thought and emulate the same kind of questioning of a children, who might be unaware of the actual limits of physics and just wants to figure something out.
Then come the answers themselves. Now, I must admit that I believe Munroe to be way more knowledgeable in mathematics and physics than me, so I've never fact-checked his methods and only a few of the sources he cites. I'm believing him to give us factually correct answers.
Now, factual answers are there and anyone smart enough to reach them can preach them, but not everyone will teach them in the same way and this is where Munroe's talent really shines.
The answers given form a single coherent narrative in themselves. Even though some of the answers are given right off the bat, the meat of every chapter consists mostly on:
- Some background on the science and facts of the question
- The seed of a funny or unusual narrative
- An initial (heuristic) method of figuring out the answer
- The actual explanation of the process
- The (amusing) consequences of the act and wrap-up of the narrative
This formula isn't completely new. It's not hard to see similarities between, say, What if? and the Mythbusters: they both start off with "useless" questions and are tested in a "blunt" but concise way. They both look forward to push the question to its limits for greater lulz and science.
I believe not all of us are inclined to become scientists and that's perfectly fine, but we all need to be scientifically literate which I would not define as knowing every formula in the book, but knowing the major methods of figuring out a solution to a particular problem and, eventually, its answer.
This is why I really like the Mythbusters and What if?. They don't want to teach people about the minutiae of science (that only a fraction of the audience will be interested in). They aim to teach their audiences about scientific thought, about posing interesting questions and figuring out an answer as best as possible.
What if? has taught me that, even if some questions are silly, they can become a catalyst for learning and education. Who really cares if you learn about Newton's Laws based on NASCAR instead of an idealized ball of uniform density in constant acceleration and no air friction? Science education needs to embrace new examples and methods of teaching and methods like What if? might just be the new step forward in it.