What If? (book)

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For other instances of this title, see What If (disambiguation).
The original cover of the book
The new cover of the book
The alternate cover of the book

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions was released on September 2, 2014. This was announced on xkcd on January 31st when the comic 2575: What If? 2 came out. This came out after a three week countdown revealing the image from the cover of the new book over 136 frames released with about 4 hours between each frame. This has become known as the Countdown in header text, see all details on that page. Later he released a different countdown with comic 2636: What If? 2 Countdown. In 2022, the second book in the series, What If? 2, was released.

The books are based on what if?, a blog hosted on the xkcd.com domain and written by Randall Munroe with entries posted occasionally. Before publishing the first what if? book, articles were posted weekly. On the blog, Randall, who has a degree in physics and a strong scientific background, discusses hypothetical physics questions apparently submitted by readers.

Unlike other sites which answer readers' questions, what if? typically takes the question beyond the original scope likely intended by the reader and takes it to some extreme for humorous effect. For example, in the first article, he discusses what would happen if a baseball were pitched at 90% of the speed of light. After effectively describing what would occur as a nuclear explosion, leveling the stadium and the surrounding mile radius, he concludes with the note "A careful reading of official Major League Baseball Rule 6.08(b) suggests that in this situation, the batter would be considered 'hit by pitch', and would be eligible to advance to first base."

The questions Randall tackles range from realistic possibilities (e.g. the probability of achieving a perfect SAT score by guessing) to completely fictional questions (e.g. How much Force power can Yoda output?). In his explanations, Randall, often uses diagrams in an xkcd style. Regardless of the context, Randall tends to take the questions extremely literally and responds seriously to them, even if they are whimsical (such as the Yoda question). This is clear from his response to the question of what would happen if everybody on Earth stood together and jumped at the same time. After acknowledging that the question has been answered elsewhere, he recaps the result, but then focuses more intently on the unasked resulting issue of the aftermath of everyone on Earth being magically transported to one location as they all try to return home.

Randall announced his what if? book on 12 March 2014 in the blag. It was published on September 2, 2014, and the UK edition of the book was published on September 4, 2014. It is the 2nd book published by Randall. It is just like xkcd: volume 0 a compilation of some questions from the website, but half of them are new.

In the UK edition of the book, Randall included a preface about his thoughts on the units used in the UK. (The Metric System)


For a complete list of the articles contained in the book, see What If? chapters. This list can also be found in the archive section on the what if? blog.

General summary[edit]

Randall Munroe left NASA in 2005 to start up his hugely popular site XKCD 'a web comic of romance, sarcasm, math and language' which offers a witty take on the world of science and geeks. It now has 600,000 to a million page hits daily. Every now and then, Munroe would get emails asking him to arbitrate a science debate. 'My friend and I were arguing about what would happen if a bullet got struck by lightning, and we agreed that you should resolve it . . . ' He liked these questions so much that he started up What If.

  • If your cells suddenly lost the power to divide, how long would you survive?
  • How dangerous is it, really, to be in a swimming pool in a thunderstorm?
  • If we hooked turbines to people exercising in gyms, how much power could we produce?
  • What if everyone only had one soulmate?
  • When (if ever) did the sun go down on the British empire?
  • How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?
  • What would happen if the moon went away?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, studded with memorable cartoons and infographics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. Far more than a book for geeks, WHAT IF: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions explains the laws of science in operation in a way that every intelligent reader will enjoy and feel much the smarter for having read.

UK edition[edit]

Hey! Thanks for looking at my book. If you're thinking about buying it, here are some things you might want to know:

Humans can't digest the cellulose in paper, but if we could, eating this book would give you about 2,300 calories (including the cover).

This book can't stop most bullets; if you want to use it for armour, you may want a lot more than one copy.

If you have a good arm, you could probably throw this book about 45 feet. With practice, it's possible to throw a book every 800 milliseconds, which means that if human attackers are sprinting towards you, you'll have three or four chances to hit them before they reach you. If, on the other hand, you're being attacked by a coyote, its higher top speed means you'll have only one chance to hit it. Aim carefully.

HIDDEN FEATURE: The inside of this book has words and pictures, plus a special UK foreword. It answers many important questions, including whether you could jump from a plane with a helium tank and inflate balloons fast enough to slow your fall and survive (yes) and whether you could hide from a supersonic windstorm in Finland (yes, but it won't help).