2702: What If 2 Gift Guide

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For other instances of this title, see What If (disambiguation).
What If 2 Gift Guide


Randall is again promoting his new book, What If? 2, and starts by explaining the kind of recipient who might appreciate it, basically anyone who is into science or anything in the universe... So basically anyone.

Then he also gives both direct and humorously indirect instructions of how to obtain the book for them, the latter method making a jocular (but not completely wrong) presumption that almost any text-input widget leads to some relevant search-engine result. Also the entire comic is a link to the What If? 2 page on xkcd that's included in the comic. As always, clicking anywhere on the image will take you there (including actually clicking on the link).

He also suggests some other tongue-in-cheek gift ideas for several other subtypes of gift-receiver, most of which are, in keeping with the What If ethos, somewhat dangerous or impractical. A number directly reference things previously mentioned or depicted by xkcd.

Interest Gift Idea Explanation
Engineering The platinum cylinder formerly used to define the kilogram This is an object of historical relevance of which only six exist, making it a very expensive or illegal gift. With the redefinition of the SI base units in 2019, the kilogram is now defined using only natural constants rather than a physical standard. It took some time before this last SI unit was redefined, 3 years prior to this comic's release. The old prototypes are no longer as important as they were when they were actually used to define the kilogram. But they are still historical artifacts with enormous value, even apart from the value of their constituent elements (because they are 10% iridium in weight, about $46 000 per prototype as of 2024-05-29).
Biology The genomes of the scientists who headed the human genome project The "International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium," as the Human Genome Project team was known, involved scientists from twenty institutions in six countries. In the US, it was initially led by DNA structure co-discoverer James Watson who was succeeded by Francis Collins. In the UK, the project was led by John Sulston. The teams from other countries' institutions were less prominent and performed substantially less work on the initial sequencing. James Watson's genome was sequenced in 2007. The genome of Craig Venter, the CEO of Celera Genomics, was used as the exemplar for Celera’s sequence. While the “race” between Celera and NIH was declared a tie by then-President Clinton, in actuality, Celera had some 85+% coverage while NIH was about 50%.
Physics A beam of neutrinos delivered through the earth by the LHC Neutrinos interact very weakly with other particles, to the point that they almost always pass straight through matter completely unaffected. This means that particle accelerators (such as the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC) can send neutrinos to any other point on Earth by aiming the particle beam into the ground, and the neutrinos pass straight through the Earth. This point is referenced in the What-If article "Lethal Neutrinos". The low interactivity of neutrinos would also mean that the recipient would be unable to perceive their gift, making this a poor present for anyone except the small proportion of physics aficionados who already have a neutrino detector on-hand.
Animals Surprise wildlife encounter (gift-wrapped box with a bobcat inside) This is a reference to xkcd's rich history of mailing boxed bobcats to people. This gift would place the recipient in a perilous situation, and, although definitely a wildlife encounter, is not a good gift.[citation needed]
Law A vacation to that area of Idaho where you can commit crimes with impunity due to a court district boundary error This refers to the "Zone of Death", a 50-square-mile area of Yellowstone National Park that is in the physical boundaries of Idaho, but in the legal jurisdiction of Wyoming. Because a jury in the United States must be composed of residents of the same district and state in which the crime was committed, but no one lives in this small area of a National Park, anyone who committed a crime here could not (according to a legal theory not fully tested in the courts) receive a trial, and thus could not legally be punished for said crime in any circumstance. This is an interesting legal loophole, but going to this area does not provide any more value than hearing about it, and could scare your law-enthusiast friend.
Chemistry A necklace of element samples whose symbols spell out the recipient's name (note: names like "Katherine" and "Brandon" may cause radiation accidents.) Novelty necklaces are a common and innocuous gift. The Periodic Table traditionally represents each of the chemical elements with a one or two letter symbol. Using these symbols to replace letters in a name is a common gimmick (famously used in the title and credits of Breaking Bad). Using real samples of the given elements could be difficult, as elements can be expensive, highly reactive, or toxic, and some are gaseous or liquid at room temperature. Reactivity and toxicity can be dealt with by containing them in well-sealed containers, which would also be necessary for non-solids. Radioactive elements, on the other hand, could be dangerous even if well contained, and some have half-lives too short to make them a practical gift. Spelling "Katherine" entirely with elemental symbols requires using astatine (whose symbol is "At"), and "Brandon" would require radium (with the symbol Ra). Neither of these elements have stable forms, and both would put out dangerous amounts of radiation. If worn as a necklace (and thus constantly near human flesh), even a small sample of either of these would be dangerous. Additionally, the letters J and Q do not appear in the standard periodic table symbols, while M does not appear on its own (only followed by six other characters, with "o" as the only vowel amongst them), so a name like John, Quinn or Mike would be problematic.
Puzzles Two goats and a new car This is a reference to the "Monty Hall problem", in which a game show contestant has to choose between three doors, two of which conceal goats and one of which conceals a car, and wins whatever prize is revealed. (See 1282: Monty Hall, for another cartoon inspired by this problem.) This gift places the recipient within a puzzle which is typically discussed hypothetically rather than happening in real life. Although many people would consider a new car a great gift, those who would appreciate a gift of goats are less common.
Technology Cybiko® wireless handheld computer for teens (2000) This is a direct callback to one of the previous week's comics, which humorously suggested that this device is a better option than most of the current popular communication technologies. While an interesting example of the history of communication technology and coming from a time when experimentation was common and standards were few, it isn't very useful now, because it is no longer supported, has a communication range of 100 meters (sending text messages via radio) and one can only use it to communicate with users of the same device. However, technology enthusiasts could find it interesting as a collectors' item, so by all means it is one of the most plausible gift ideas on this list.
Space Webb telescope personal photoshoot The Webb telescope belongs to NASA, the ESA and the CSA, and is currently very far from Earth. It is designed to capture distant space objects in previously unseen detail. If the photoshoot implies photographing a nearby human, it is not designed to do this, even if the difficulties of sending a human about a million miles to its location could be overcome. On the other hand, if it means photographing the recipient on the earth's surface, Webb would have to point at the warm Earth and expose its optics to the Sun, permanently crippling the telescope (Which is forbidden by NASA.) and it would not have sufficient resolution to make out the subject in any case. These circumstances make it a highly impractical gift, to all intents and purposes to the point of impossibility.

On the other hand, a gift experience of being allowed to take your own snapshot of Webb in position, perhaps with a robotic telescope, might be an attractive gift to a space enthusiast! So might a chance to use the Webb telescope to take pictures of whatever celestial objects one chooses, as time on the Webb telescope is very carefully allocated.

Literature Stephen King's writing desk (he's still using it so you'll have to fight him) Stephen King is an author lucky enough to have legendary status while still alive. The desk of a famous author who has died would become an object of historic significance and would likely be either kept for exhibition or auctioned by their respective estate, but as Stephen King is still alive, he would probably object to his desk being subjected to the same.
Philosophy Out-of-control trolley This is another gift that places the recipient in the situations that they like discussing hypothetically. The trolley problem is a thought experiment in which one is asked to decide between allowing a trolley to kill five people or taking an action that causes it to kill one. Presenting someone with such a hypothetical problem may or may not be not a good gift, but forcing them to live through it in real life is a terrible gift. (See 1455: Trolley Problem for another cartoon inspired by this problem.)
Psychology A nice gift with a note saying you don't expect anything in return This unkind attempt at psychological manipulation is intended as a joke, and is not a viable option on this list. Unlike normal gift giving, which could induce the Benjamin Franklin effect, causing the gift giver to like the recipient more, explicitly stating that the giver doesn't expect anything is an attempt to manipulate or guilt-trip the recipient (as is common for people with personality disorders) by increasing pressure to reciprocate. The joke here comes from the idea of giving a psychologist a note relating to the psychology of gift-giving, manipulation, and personality disorders, but this would not be to their enjoyment and should not be done in real life.
(Title text) Babies or literature but not both Baby shoes This is a reference to the six-word story For sale: baby shoes, never worn, sometimes falsely attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Someone involved with babies, such as expecting or new parents, would find baby shoes a valuable gift for their child. Someone interested in literature would see the reference to a famous work. But someone who understands the reference and also enjoys babies might be sad, since the story implies the seller was expecting a baby but something went tragically wrong. This story was previously the subject of 1540: Hemingway.


What If? 2 Gift Guide

What if? 2 makes a good gift for anyone who's into science, absurd ideas, or just the universe in general. To order, go to xkcd.com/whatif2, or just type "what if 2" into some random box on your device; it will probably work.

Here are some other gift ideas for hard-to-shop-for science enthusiasts:

Interest - Gift Idea

Engineering - The platinum cylinder formerly used to define the kilogram
Biology - The genomes of the scientists who headed the human genome project
Physics - A beam of neutrinos delivered through the earth by the LHC
Animals - Surprise wildlife encounter (gift-wrapped box with a bobcat inside)
Law - A vacation to that area of Idaho where you can commit crimes with impunity due to a court district boundary error
Chemistry - A necklace of element samples whose symbols spell out the recipient's name (note: names like "Katherine" and "Brandon" may cause radiation accidents.)
Puzzles - Two goats and a new car
Technology - Cybiko® Wireless Handheld Computer for Teens (2000)
Space - Webb telescope personal photoshoot
Literature - Stephen King's writing desk (he's still using it so you'll have to fight him)
Philosophy - Out-of-control trolley
Psychology - A nice gift with a note saying you don't expect anything in return.

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The puzzle is almost certainly a reference to the Monty Hall problem, since that's usually framed in terms of 3 doors: behind 2 are goats (bad prizes), behind the third is a new (the desirable prize). While the other puzzles share some attributes, I doubt they're intended. Barmar (talk) 21:55, 23 November 2022 (UTC)

Who says goats are a bad prize? If you want to make goat's milk cheese, they are quite necessary. Whereas a car may be a burden, most states still require the recipient to pay sales tax, which can be thousands of dollars. SDSpivey (talk) 01:58, 24 November 2022 (UTC)
Maybe figuring out how to transport the goats in the new car without the goats ruining it would also be a puzzle.
I don't think there is a solid enough connection to the Goat, Wolf, Cabbage problem to warrant including in the table as a reference. 18:26, 30 November 2022 (UTC)

The goat can be left on its own, but not with the fox or the cabbage. 00:12, 24 November 2022 (UTC)

Another problem with the James Webb photo is that, from its orbit, the Earth appears too close to the Sun to be safe to photograph. So, the recipient of the gift would have to travel into deep space, well past the orbit of the Moon, for the shoot. 22:22, 23 November 2022 (UTC)

Wasn't Bobcat in a Box inspired by xkcd #576 and its title text, which wasn't even the first boxed bobcat in xkcd? Feels weird to say that the boxed bobcat is a reference to an external brand and not xkcd's rich internal history of mailing people bobcats. GreatWyrmGold (talk) 06:14, 24 November 2022 (UTC)

I assume that even if the platinum (or platinum-iridium) cylinder used to define kilogram was recreation, rather than original, it would still be very expensive ($31,965 per kg). --JakubNarebski (talk) 11:40, 24 November 2022 (UTC)

"Katherine and Brandon"[edit]

Could someone explain those Names in the "Chemistry" entry to me? It would be very atypical for Randall to make a mistake in that place, but both seem to be impossible to spell with the periodic table of elements. Potassium, Astatine and Helium would give K-At-He- (and some radiation posioning) and Iodine and Neon -Id-Ne. But neither Rubidium (Ru), nor Radium (Ra), nor Ruthentium (Ru), nor Rhodium (Rh) nor Radon (RN) give you a pure "R" and likewise there is no Element Ri or Er, so it is impossible to put the "R" into "Katherine". Likewise "Brandon" could be started with Boron (B), Radon (Ra), Nitrogen (N) and finished with Oxygen (O) and again Nitrogen (N), but there are only two "D"s in the whole peridoic table and both are fixed to other letters, that would not fit: Paladium (Pd) and Gadolinium (Gd). P.S.: 3 full Minutes of Captcha-solving for a Wiki? WTF??? (talk) 23:40, 23 November 2022 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Potassium-Astatine-Hydrogen-Erbium-Iodine-Neon 23:59, 23 November 2022 (UTC)
As for Brandon, you seem to have missed Neodymium (Nd). So, Boron-Radon-Neodymium-Oxygen-Nitrogen TurZ (talk) 07:00, 24 November 2022 (UTC)

Could he be limiting himself to rendering only the capital letters of each element? 00:17, 24 November 2022 (UTC) But Astatine is so radioactive that no one has ever seen it. A lump big enough to physically see would instantly sublimate with its own heat of radioactivity. 00:08, 24 November 2022 (UTC)

Due to the prior comic, I actually bought a Cybiko (I'm into older computer collecting). Now that he's mentioned it again, I'm thankful I got it quick, before the inevitable price rise. 01:00, 24 November 2022 (UTC)

Is it good? —While False (museum | talk | contributions | logs | rights | printable version | page information | what links there | related changes | Google search | current time: 09:40) 05:28, 24 November 2022 (UTC)
I got one, long ago. I think it has a serial connection (RS232?) as well as a radio of whatever kind, and there was reasonably good SDK support for writing your own software, on PC, to download to the Cybiko. I had and have an RSI problem with my hands, and what I tried to do is to use it as a one-handed PC keyboard - so I had to do some pretty simple programming for that, to transmit keys. On the PC end, I think that a serial keyboard was or is a standard supported disability aid option. It might wear out, thought. But currently I do better with a touch screen PC and the "FITALY" on-screen typing program - the man who wrote that died, though. Robert Carnegie [email protected] 13:03, 24 November 2022 (UTC)

Might be relevant, but What If? had a chapter dedicated to the hypotetical idea of building a periodic table with each square comprised of the element represented therein. It obviously gets dangerous/apocalyptic by the time you get past the first couple rows.-- 13:19, 26 November 2022 (UTC)

A quick and largely inelegant run-through (assuming I listed all 118 correctly) shows that as well as two single characters (J and Q) for which there are currently no possible elemental spellings, there are a further 45 digraphs (excluding those already rendered impossible) with no possibilities of being spelt, as well as 2543 trigraphs (again, minus all those predisqualified) which cannot be so rendered. (Without such cascading exclusions, that's 145 digraphs and 8365 trigraphs - out of the basic and otherwise unaccented 26 letters, making a full 8%, 21% and 48%, respectively of all conceivable lengths from 1 to 3, incapable of being sequenced.)
Though all absences should more properly be weighted to the likelihood of encountering them, as well. Maybe "ytz" isn't such a great loss, and "qqq" even less so; except perhaps by the next Musk child, who will probably have other issues to worry about. But the impossibility of "dan" (not even with Deuterium, which was just one of those that I didn't include in my check) causes problems for anyone called Dan as well as hypernyms (Daniel/Danielle, etc, though for those, and others, the lack of "iel" is probably a bigger problem). If anyone is called anything like "BMX" or "BMW" (depending upon the peculiar, and possibly misguided, aspirations of their parents) then they're probably also outliers!
If I find a good name-frequency list, I may run the lists through a further stage to highlight particularly overlooked holes in the sequences such that we can work out which new symbols (under the guise of whole 'relevant' names) we could most usefully petition IUPAC to adopt for elements 119+... ;) 07:10, 27 November 2022 (UTC)

Impossibility of a short name does not necessarily imply longer names containing them are impossible. "Tim" is not possible, but "Timothy" is. 12:01, 28 November 2022 (UTC)
I'd forgotten I'd set this thing running but, on getting back from my Christmas break I spotted that my (woefully inefficient) script had got to a certain point. And unlikely to get to the next waypoint any time soon without a major optimisation/parallelisation rewrite!
I used a semi-weighted list of the top 100 names given to boys in Britain over the last several decades. I first tried to get a list of more names, male and female, with actual number of instances, but I didn't get anything easily analysable so quickly plugged in the above for proof-of-conceot and approximated numbers by doing something clever but not necessarily correct from the ranking number, if any, in each year... ("Jack", in my system, is 197 times more common than "Otis". "Tommy" is the median, at 4.4 times Otis, just above Mohammad at 4.2 - but even if I've got the order right, I probably have mis-scaled my population numbers. I used Logs, along the way, to try to actually make the changes less steep, but only so that the figures "looked right ...ish".)
I did an assessment of how novel element symbols might 'improve' name coverage. By two measures. Firstly, by just how many more names (than the baseline) any given symbol(s) added to the spellable list, without regard for popularity. Secondly, by how many more individuals (by assumed frequency of any given name) would benefit.
Combos 2-letter symbols only 1- and 2-letter symbols
Symbols 676 Total (Aa..Zz) 702 Total (A..Z,Aa..Zz)
573 Unused not a current symbol 586 Unused
424 Unused2 also not two current 1-char symbols 437 Unused
30 Useful also in sourced names 41 Useful
Combo sets More names Better names Combo sets More names Better names
New Symbols % names % improve New Symbols % weight % improve New Symbols % names % improve New Symbols % weight % improve
Baseline 0 Current 14% n/a Current 16% n/a ditto
Add one 30 Le 18% 29% Ry 23% 38% 41 R 23% 64% J 40% 144%
Add two 435 El Li 21% 50% Ma Oa 25% 53% 820 E L 35% 150% J R 53% 122%
Add three 4,060 El Ja Le 24% 71% Da El Ma 28% 71% 10,660 E L R 44% 214% A J R 62% 277%
Add four 27,405 El Ja Le Lo 27% 93% Da El Ma Oa 30% 85% 101,270 A E J L 57% 279% A J M R 68% 317%
Add five 142,506 El Ja Le Lo Ma 29% 107% Da El Ja Ma Oa 33% 101% 749,348 A E J L R 63% 350% A E J L R 75% 362%
Add six 593,775 El Ja Le Lo Ma Mi 31% 121% Da El Ja Le Ma Oa 35% 114% 4,496,388 A D J L M R 72% 414% A E J L M R 82% 403%
FYI, the final four results give the following (including previously valid) names:
  • Six 2chars, most names: Arlo (never knew that was a name!), Benjamin, Bobby, Brody, Caleb, Dylan, Elijah, Ellis, Finley, Finn, Gabriel, Hudson, Jacob, Jasper, Leo, Liam, Logan, Louis, Luca, Lucas, Mason, Milo, Oliver, Oscar, Otis, Reuben, Samuel, Sonny, Stanley, Thomas, Yusuf (31 total)
  • Six 2chars, best names: Bobby, Brody, Caleb, Daniel, Dylan, Elijah, Ellis, Finley, Finn, Gabriel, Hudson, Jacob, Jasper, Leo, Liam, Luca, Lucas, Mason, Noah, Oakley, Oliver, Oscar, Otis, Reuben, Samuel, Sonny, Stanley, Thomas, Yusuf (29 total)
  • Six 1+2chars, most: Adam, Albie, Alfie, Alfred, Arlo, Arthur, Benjamin, Blake, Bobby, Brody, Caleb, Carter, Daniel, David, Dylan, Edward, Elijah, Ellis, Ethan, Ezra, Finley, Finn, Frankie, Freddie, Gabriel, George, Harrison, Harry, Harvey, Henry, Hudson, Hunter, Isaac, Jack, Jackson, Jacob, James, Jasper, Jesse, Joseph, Joshua, Jude, Kai, Leo, Liam, Logan, Louie, Louis, Luca, Lucas, Nathan, Noah, Oakley, Oliver, Ollie, Oscar, Otis, Ralph, Reuben, Riley, Ronnie, Rory, Rowan, Samuel, Sebastian, Sonny, Stanley, Teddy, Theo, Theodore, William, Yusuf (72 total)
  • Six 1+2char, best: Albie, Alfie, Arlo, Arthur, Benjamin, Blake, Bobby, Brody, Caleb, Carter, Dylan, Elijah, Ellis, Ethan, Ezra, Finley, Finn, Frankie, Gabriel, George, Harrison, Harry, Harvey, Henry, Hudson, Hunter, Isaac, Jack, Jackson, Jacob, James, Jasper, Jesse, Joseph, Joshua, Kai, Leo, Liam, Logan, Louie, Louis, Luca, Lucas, Mason, Milo, Myles, Nathan, Noah, Oakley, Oliver, Ollie, Oscar, Otis, Ralph, Reuben, Riley, Roman, Ronnie, Rory, Rowan, Samuel, Sebastian, Sonny, Stanley, Theo, Thomas, William, Yusuf (68 total)
(Any errors in the above might just be my transcribing.)
I had hoped to get to the point where the 1+2char test would actually find a 2char candidate in the final run. The last run started with "A Ad Bl C Ch D", improving name quantity by 72% and fitness by 38%. At 0.38% of the way through the test, the list "A Ad E J L R" (fitness+367%) was the last appearance of a digraph in the incremental striving for higher values. I'm quickly guessing it'll be at the stage of testing 8+ additional symbols, maybe much later. And my current script will take at least two months to give me that result, even with some rather obvious shortcuts.
...anyway, as I'm probably not going back to this, enjoy. And/or have a laugh at my incompetence. 17:03, 2 January 2023 (UTC)


Hi, this is my first edit, I hope I'm doing it right. The psychology example is most likely about the norm of reciprocity (see Wikipedia). It's a very strong norm. Violations of this norm can indeed cause distress to a point where people express anger if they can't reciprocate (which seems somewhat irrational at times). I'm a psychology student from Germany, I might do some errors when writing in english :) 06:15, 24 November 2022 (UTC)

Welcome! 21:58, 24 November 2022 (UTC)

The Benjamin Franklin effect is not involved here. The Benjamin Franklin effect is when you get someone to like you by asking that person to do you a favor. Named after Benjamin Franklin because he described how he made a friend out of an enemy by asking to borrow a rare book. Franklin had previously tried to get on this person's good side by giving gifts, only to be constantly rebuffed. Ophidiophile (talk) 21:53, 2 February 2023 (UTC)

Baby Shoes[edit]

Has nobody mentioned the xkcd comic that references this yet? https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/1540:_Hemingway

Artinum 09:45, 24 November 2022 (UTC)

The alt text is a reference to Ernest Hemingway's 6 word short story "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." This is also referenced in comic 1540 https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/1540:_HemingwayRobm (talk) 19:04, 25 November 2022 (UTC)

...this was already Explained before any of the above was added to the discussion. (It had to be improved, e.g. the wikilink, but now it's fairly well resolved unless you think it needs tweaking.) 21:40, 25 November 2022 (UTC)

I can't be the only one who wishes he'd done it as "Babies/Literature (Not Both): Baby Shoes" -- mezimm 15:41, 28 November 2022 (UTC)

Anyone who reads that short story and thinks it's sad hasn't experiences how quickly babies grow in a while. We've given away so many baby shoes that the baby grew out of before they got a chance to wear them. It's just a reality of life. Andyd273 (talk) 17:43, 29 November 2022 (UTC)

Stephen King[edit]

I admit I haven't read it, but might the entry for Stephen King's desk be a reference to Misery, which involves an author kidnapped by a psycho fan of his? Let me know how far off base I am, or if there's actually some merit to my speculation. MarsJenkar (talk) 15:02, 1 December 2022 (UTC)