If you’ve ever had a 10-year argument with a friend about whether all the world’s bananas could fit inside all the world’s churches, Randall Munroe’s newest book, What If 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, might be for you.
Besides settling that very specific debate, Munroe dives into other pressing mysteries, including why humans have yet to build a billion-story building, how many people a tyrannosaurus would need to eat per day in New York City, and the optimal playground swing-set size.
Munroe, a former NASA roboticist turned internet cartoonist and author, will visit Santa Cruz for a conversation with author and illustrator Raina Telgemeier at Hotel Paradox on September 22 in an event cosponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz and KAZU 90.3 FM. They will discuss the release of Munroe’s newest book, which is full of silly questions answered using serious science.
Munroe got his start posting stick-figure comics on his website, xkcd.com. People started sending him questions, and he eventually compiled the answers and comics into the #1 New York Times bestseller What If. The new sequel, What If 2, keeps the same spirit, embracing absurdity, irony and sheer curiosity.
“When I hear a question that really sparks my curiosity, it’s like getting a song stuck in your head. I can’t quite focus on anything else until I figure out the answer,” says Munroe.
He compares his process to nodding off and waking up 12 hours later surrounded by PDFs of old studies, books and calculations. Munroe tries anything he can think of to get a reasonable answer to unreasonable questions.
Once he finds a satisfying solution, Munroe imagines going back in time to save himself the effort.
“I think of it like writing up Cliff’s Notes for my past self instead of trying to translate it for someone else,” he says.
Munroe grew up reading newspaper comics like Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and Fox Trot.
“I think I read every Garfield strip published up until sometime in the ’90s,” he says with a chuckle. His humor comes through in easy reading, punchy stick-figure comics and witty diagrams.
Even the footnotes include jokes, often pointing to rabbit holes tangential to the original question.
“I have to limit myself and not make endless digressions and never actually get to the point I was trying to get to,” says Munroe.
The footnotes and comics break up the pace and add to comedic timing, turning what could easily be overly technical into an entertaining read.
And although most of the questions sound ridiculous, Munroe and his readers learn surprising facts about the weird world around us.
One reader asked what might happen if you stood next to an object super-cooled to absolute zero—the lowest temperature possible.
At first, Munroe thought you might just need to wear a winter jacket in the room. But digging deeper revealed a surprising danger.
“Really cold stuff can have oxygen condense out of the air onto the surface,” he says. That liquid oxygen is highly flammable and unstable.
“So really, really cold objects can actually start fires,” says Munroe.“Engineers who work with cryogenic equipment have to look out for this.”
Some of the questions lead to active areas of research and problems that still need solving.
“It’s hard to tell what’s going to be a complicated question when you start,” says Munroe.
One such question was, essentially, “Where does the rubber go as tires wear down?” It seemed simple enough at first, but the road to the answer was windy and confusing.
“It turns out it goes everywhere,” says Munroe. “We’re not sure how it’s carried around. It seems to be showing up in the water and the air and the soil. There’s nowhere good that it’s going, and it’s actually a huge problem. No one has figured out what to do about it.”
He includes these types of uncertainties in the book, reminding readers that the world is still full of solvable mysteries.
“I think it’s encouraging when you’re reading all this stuff, especially as a kid, to realize that we haven’t figured everything out yet,” says Munroe.
Using math and science, “you can transform questions that seem unanswerable into things that actually have a concrete answer,” he says. “And then you can go find it. I think that’s really cool.”
Randall Munroe will discuss ‘What If 2’ Thursday, Sept. 22, 7pm. Hotel Paradox, 611 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. $35; $5 for additional attendee (includes book). bookshopsantacruz.com.