Randall Munroe Answers Absurd Science Questions


IIt is quite certain that no one will fill the solar system with soup to the orbit of Jupiter. For one thing, that would require a lot of soup – 2 x 10 to the 39 liters, which is also worth 10 to the 42 calories, or more energy than the sun has given off in its entire lifetime. A fragile solar system is therefore not to be expected in the foreseeable future.

However, that fact didn’t stop a five-year-old girl named Amelia from asking about the possibility on the site xkcd.comhosted and written by Randall Munroe, 37, author of the 2014 bestseller What happened if? and the just released sequel What happened if? 2. Since Amelia had asked, Munroe answered and devoted the opening chapter of the new book to the matter of what he calls Soupiter. The answer, in short, isn’t pretty – it’s a soup-based black hole that would engulf our entire solar system, annihilating everything in it and slicing a swathe through a not inconsiderable chunk of the Milky Way.

“I liked the specificity of the question,” says Munroe. “I mean, why soup? The questions I get from little kids are always the best because they aren’t put together by adults who understand a lot. They just bring concepts together in surprising ways.”

There’s a little bit of Amelia in all of us – and Munroe has made it her mission to satisfy our curiosity. What happened if? 2, like the original, is replete with questions that are imaginatively asked but perfectly – and playfully – informative in their answers. If a T. rex were released in New York City, how many people would it have to eat per day to stay alive? (About half a person a day, or worth 55,000 calories.) Could you eat a cloud? (Maybe, but first you’d have to squeeze all the air out, and the cloud wouldn’t have to be bigger than a house, since such a size would hold about a liter of water, which is all the human stomach can hold at one time.) How long would it take to fill an Olympic swimming pool with your own saliva? (Roughly 8,345 years, considering the average human produces about 500 milliliters of saliva per day.)

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The questions throughout What happened if? 2 are equal parts brilliant, gross, and wonderfully absurd, and the answers are thorough, thoroughly researched, and great fun — not least because they’re accompanied by Munroe’s stick-figure artwork. Both books are of course – albeit somewhat circumstantially – based on Munroe’s earlier life.

A graduate of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, Munroe studied physics, mathematics and computer engineering and managed to secure an internship at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia during his junior and senior years. His work for NASA included developing 3D visualizations and robotic navigation systems for a prototype Mars plane that Langley engineers were trying to develop.

“My job was to have the robot drive around the lab,” says Munroe, “so I wasn’t so concerned about navigating rocks on Mars as I was about dodging chairs and trying to hit the kids of the executives of not to meet Langley.”

The work was stimulating enough – more stimulating, in fact, than Munroe’s time in classes with Christopher Newport, much of which he spent doodling in the margins of his notebooks. “I wasn’t good at taking notes,” he says. “I drew things while I was listening – inventions I wanted to build or little stick figures running around fighting little battles.”

Those doodles eventually became something of a body of work, and eventually Munroe decided he wanted to share them with the world through his own website. It was the days of the Internet’s frontier workers, when domain names were scraped together in Scheffelbergen and it turned out that even the most imaginative names he could think of had already been claimed. Eventually he decided that he would have to make do with a series of nonsensical letters.

“I didn’t want anything with an O in it because it could be confused with a zero,” he says. “And I didn’t want anything with an L because when that’s lowercase, it can be confused with a one.” That brought him to the utterly meaningless xkcd.com— a domain he claimed and quickly began filling up with scanned versions of notebooks full of doodles, which he shared with friends, who then shared them with their own friends — and the site’s fan base began to grow.

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Much of the subject matter of the drawings involved math and science, and soon people began writing with questions. “They would ask me things like, ‘Me and my friend were arguing about whether Superman could dodge a bullet without creating a shockwave,'” says Munroe. “Then they added, ‘That doesn’t seem like a question that bothers a real scientist, and we both agreed that you seem like a good person.’ Maybe I should have been insulted, but the truth was, they were right, and so I spent about the next six hours researching these questions.” (The answer, by the way, is that when Superman dodges a bullet, it actually creates a shockwave could generate—which would decidedly upset the nearby residents of his hometown of Metropolis.)

Munroe found he thoroughly enjoyed the hours he spent answering such imaginative requests, so he posted a note on the website asking for more questions, and of those the original What happened if? was born. The book became a sensation, was translated into 35 languages ​​and reached number one in New York Times bestseller list.

What happened if? 2 continues in the same spirit, even with one more question about a bullet – specifically, whether it would be possible to catch a bullet fired straight up if you could somehow be positioned at the exact point where it reaches the peak of its arc and has lost its speed . (The answer: yes, but it would feel hot, so maybe wear a mitt.)

Enjoying science doesn’t mean Munroe doesn’t mean science too, and he sometimes despairs that we live in an age of scientific illiteracy, or at least misinformation — with all sorts of misconceptions about vaccines and the Climate change, the age of the earth and more. He attributes some of this to sheer confusion about what is and isn’t true, and he hopes his work will provide something of a judgment-free zone for people who are feeling at sea about science.

“No one wants to look like the one person in class who isn’t following what’s going on,” he says. “People tend to think, ‘Oh, I guess I’m not smart enough for that.’ So I think it’s really important to convey the idea that everyone is confused about scientific ideas. The most accomplished scientists and non-scientists – we’re all just trying to figure things out and it’s okay to be confused.”

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When Munroe finds himself in a position to debunk misunderstandings, he relies on the facts – and presents them as neutrally as possible. “For someone who thinks the earth is 6,000 years old, I would say, ‘Hey, have you seen that cool newspaper? It’s about this really neat dig site and it shows how the land has shifted and used to be underground and now it’s above ground. It might not lead to a conversion moment, but I find it better to engage with people than to be condescending to them.”

But reckoning with such third-rail politicized issues is not what occupies most of Munroe’s mind. That remains dedicated to the brand of the imagination that fills What happened if? 2. For example, if the universe had stopped expanding now, how long would it take you to drive to its edge – assuming you obey a 65 mph speed limit? (4.8 x 10 to the power of 17 years, or 35 million times the previous age of the universe of 13.8 billion years.) If you were flying blindly through the Milky Way, what would be your chances of hitting a star? (Just one in 10 billion—galaxies are mostly empty space.) How many toaster ovens would it take to heat an average-sized house, always running? (Surprisingly few – only about 20. If you chose to make toast at the same time, you’d be going through about 30 loaves an hour.)

Do you need any of this information? no Are you happy – yes, delighted – about it to have it? Almost certainly yes. Science isn’t easy, but in Munroe’s capable hands it can certainly be fun.

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write to Jeffrey Kluger at [email protected]



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