Forget the debate over the airspeed of an empty African versus a European swallow. How many pigeons would it take to raise a person sitting in a launch chair to the top of the Q1 skyscraper in Australia? Answer: You could probably manage this with a few tens of thousands of pigeons, as long as they aren’t spooked by a passing hawk or distracted by someone with a bag of seed. This is just one of many fascinating (and fun) pieces of information to glean What if? 2cartoonist and author Randall Munroe’s latest book and sequel to the 2014 bestseller What if?
Regular Ars readers probably need no introduction to Munroe, or his hugely successful and influential xkcd webcomic. But we will still give you a brief overview. Munroe has a degree in physics and worked for NASA’s Langley Research Center as a contract programmer and roboticist. As a student, he often drew charts and maps and “stick figure battles” in the margins of notebooks and decided to digitize them and post them on his personal website in 2005. The webcomic got its own website in 2006, when Munroe left NASA to write xkcd full time.
It didn’t take long for xkcd, with its distinctive stick figures, to become a daily staple for scientists, engineers, and online nerds in general. There is no such thing as them. Longtime fans know all about the tooltip with the hidden secondary punchline for each cartoon and Munroe’s obsession with possible velociraptor attacks. They spent hours with 2012’s “Click and Drag” and eagerly watched the four-month journey of time-lapse footage that included the experimental “Time,” which won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story.
Munroe’s 2012 tribute to the Saturn V rocket inspired scientists to take on the “Up-Goer Five Challenge”: to explain their research papers in the most basic language possible. In fact, Munroe ended up writing an entire book, the 2015 one. thing explainer, using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in English. (For example, pencils were “writing sticks”, airplane engines were “sky boat pushers”, and microwave ovens were “heating radio boxes”.)
What if? 2 follows the same format as its 2014 predecessor. Munroe selects nonsensical questions submitted by readers and attempts to answer them, illustrated with his trademark cartoons. Some have relatively short answers, like it’s possible to build a solid air sword. (Answer: technically, yes, but “it wouldn’t be very strong, it would be difficult to sharpen, and it would quickly cause frost damage to the hand.”) Others get the multi-page treatment, as if you could fill out a whole church with bananas.
These are interspersed with “strange and disturbing” questions, which Munroe does not even answer there; he included them because he thought the question itself was funnier than any answer he could find. Example: If Harry Potter forgot the location of the invisible entrance to Platform 9-3/4, how long would it take him to crash into the walls before discovering it? “You could calculate the answer by counting all the brick walls in the station,” Munroe told Ars. “But really, I just like the mental image of Harry Potter going, ‘Okay, that wasn’t the last five, I’m going to try this one now.'”
In short, the book is full of even more serious answers to seemingly silly questions. “Even if the answers aren’t helpful, knowing them is fun,” Munroe writes in his introduction. What if? 2for example (the physical book), “weighs as much as the electrons of two dolphins. This information is probably useless, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.
Ars sat down with Munroe to find out more. Bonus: today’s xkcd is a fun flowchart guide for those who pick up a copy of What if? 2.
Ars Technica: Somehow people have gotten into the habit of asking you these really weird, silly, sometimes impossible and implausible questions. And you started responding to them. How did this happen exactly?
Randall Munroe: When I started drawing comics, I was surprised to learn that there were so many people who were amused by the same niche science ideas or fun applications of math to different problems – things which I laughed at but didn’t expect anyone else to. Then I put these comics together and found that there’s a whole bunch of people who think things like me. It was very cool. But I certainly didn’t expect people to start thinking of me as the person to settle arguments. I was getting these emails: “Hey my friend and I have been arguing about this for a while now, and we don’t know how to answer the question. I feel like this is not a question enough good to bother a real scientist with. But we both agreed that you seem like a great person to send it to.
Maybe I should have felt a little offended. Are you suggesting that I have nothing better to do with my time, that a real scientist has important things to do? But they were also right. I would get these questions, and six hours later I would wake up from a sort of trance, because I had walked through every conceivable search hole. To me, seeing a really interesting question, where you don’t know the answer but you think it could be answered, can be like having a song stuck in your head. You can’t quite let it go until you figure it out.
So people would have these arguments and then I would get sucked in. I’d be like, I think the answer is this, but I can’t prove it. I will try to prove it. So it started when I was just trying to prove I was right about something to a random person on the internet. But then I found out that I had learned so many cool things while I was doing it that I thought, man, I should save these answers somewhere and share them with people. And that’s how my What If? the blog and the book started.