STEM Lists

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (Book Review)

Disclosure: As an Amazon affiliate, I earn a comission on sales of this item.

What’s better than a cartoonist with a great sense of humor? A cartoonist with a great sense of humor, a physics degree, and a knack for explaining science.

When roboticist Randall Munroe’s contract with NASA wasn’t renewed, he began a new career drawing cartoons. He later branched into a blog, What If?, where he answered odd hypothetical questions submitted by his fans. The project has since grown into a book—one that should amuse students and teachers alike.

Wacky Questions

Did you even wonder how long you could safely swim in the spent fuel pools at a nuclear reactor? What would happen if you assembled a mole (6.02 × 1023) of moles (the burrowing creatures)? What height you would need to drop a steak from for it too reach the ground cooked? What it would take to build a functional Lego bridge from New York to London? These are just a few of the questions Munroe tackles, mostly from physics, but with a healthy dose of math and life science.

A Master of Detail

But as creative as the questions are, it’s really the answers that make the book, of course. They’re fun to read because of Munroe’s sense of humor, but they’re educational because Munroe includes the details most people would never think of. He doesn’t just stop at the number of Legos needed to make the bridge long enough. He makes sure their buoyancy will support the cars. He considers horizontal ocean currents and how to tether the bridge. He remembers to make it taller than the ocean waves, and he even notes that we’d have to build in expansion joints because the Atlantic sea floor is stretching. If you want to show students how to tackle open-ended problems, you’ll find plenty of great material here.

The Verdict

The book isn’t absolutely perfect. I did see a small number of terminology or unit goofs that slipped through the editing, but nothing that diminishes the quality of his reasoning. Overall, it’s excellent, and just plain fun. Click below to check it out at Amazon.

See this book on Amazon


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