What If?

Posted in Reading

xkcd is one of a kind: the popular stick-figure webcomic for nerds and geeks seems to offer relevant commentary for pretty much any occasion. Its blend of computing, physics, math, and insights on life works well at a time when – as adults, anyway – it’s much more culturally acceptable to get excited about the sciences. Its author, Randall Munroe, also deserves plenty of credit in keeping his comics semi-approachable; digesting an xkcd punchline is being in on a geeky inside joke.

What If? is a blog-turned-book collection of crazy hypothetical questions submitted by readers. In typical xkcd fashion, they are answered with a combination of physics, math, and humor, and make for both an entertaining as well as a periodically educational read.

One thing I appreciate about Randall’s writing how he explains complex ideas in a simple and engaging manner, making use of analogies and absurd comparisons to drive home his points. With What If?, many of his answers communicate the sense of scale, emphasizing differences in orders of magnitude to relate the awesomely big and the truly small[1]. What may be dry exposition for less talented writers becomes an fascinating area for research and discovery here.

What If? also smartly keeps its articles digestible and short, with most questions answered in a single chapter of 1-2 pages. The quick pacing reminds me a bit of Dan Brown’s novels, in that they invoke a feeling of “just another short chapter”, and What If? offers well-paced illustrations alongside its easily ingestible content. And while Randall also recycles some of its previously published, freely available content, there’s enough original material here for an easy recommendation.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. Humans are intrinsically bad at conceptualizing large numbers, and try to only cope mostly by creating numeric abstractions.