I was looking for something a little intelligent, but lighter than what I had been listening to, while working around the house, and Randall Monroe’s “What If” filled the bill.
Monroe is a trained physicist and a short-time former contract programmer and roboticist with NASA, but he left to become a comic and a web cartoonist. He apparently became wildly popular and, in his in words, became a “Dear Abby for mad scientists”.
It must be nice to be able to get a great job and then be able to walk away from it, but who knows another person’s mind? (Monore’s mind is certainly full.)
“What If” is a compilation of questions most often asked, the author’s favorite questions and some disturbing ones, (the “Weird and wonderful”), which he often does not answer, and that in itself is very humorous.
The book was written in 2014, which makes a few of the answers a bit dated, but all in all, it is not only crazily informative for those of us interested in darned near everything, and it is terribly funny.
The version I listened to was narrated by Will Wheaton, best known as the very annoying boy-genius, Wesley Crusher of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. Even if you don’t know the show, you may have heard the phrase, “Shut up, Wesley”. Wheaton grew up and became perfect for this job.
Monroe touched on more topics than I can list. While most questions are general, the answers are not, and although greatly detailed, are for the most part extremely interesting and,again, funny as heck, as in:
What would happen if a baseball was thrown to a batter at just under the speed of light? (You wouldn’t believe all of what would happen!)
What would happen if all of the inhabitants of the Earth jumped at one time in a small area?
What would happen if the Earth stopped spinning?
(A surprising lot, and the Moon could save us.)
What would happen if you stacked particles of the complete periodic table on top of each other?
(Even more would happen! Thank God, it is impossible.)
What is the likelihood of phoning numbers at random, saying “God bless you” and reaching a person who had just sneezed?
(More likely than you could imagine, but just as likely to have found someone who had just committed murder, so he suggests being careful how you throw your blessings around.)
How much affect would printing my own money have on the economy?
(You would be shocked to find out that even with millions, it would be none.)
It’s all funnier and more outrageous than I can make it sound here. Most of it is wildly hypothetical, but based in science.
If every human on Earth died, how long would it take for all the lights to go out?
(The answer is detailed and surprising.)
When did the sun set on the British Empire?
(It actually hasn’t.)
The book’s slight age shows in the answer about “When will there be more deceased profiles of Facebook than live ones?”
(At the time, Monroe’s theories were based on more young people using FB than older ones, and boy, has THAT change quickly!)
However, considering how long ago this was, the question, “If we isolated everyone from each other, couldn’t we get the cold virus to die completely and we’d be free of it?” (Monroe goes deep into why it would conceivably be possible, but how could staying a certain distance from every other human for six weeks, and how then would everything continue to work? It makes it very clear to me that what they tried with Covid, also a coronavirus, was ill-conceived.)
Did you know that there were no earthworms in New England until the Europeans arrived?
Despite the charm of “Galaxy Quest”, Monroe tells why it is terribly unlikely for folks on other planets to have picked up our television signals, in fact, now it is almost impossible with so few over-air broadcasts and how weak the signals of todays are in comparison. The Arecibo radio antenna that was in Puerto Rico is mentioned, but alas, time changed that, too; it fell in on itself. (How it is that they allowed this to happen is completely beyond my comprehension, but as usual but I digress, and listening to Monroe expound hasn’t helped me any!)
I would love to just sit here and quote from the book to convince you of its humor, but I won’t. Either this sort of thing interests you, or it does not, but this book might surprise you, anyway. I can’t imagine that anyone would not find interest in the answer to:
What would happen if you drained the level of the oceans?
(The inland seas would stop being lowered when their connections to the oceans were cut, and, according to Monroe, the people in the Netherlands could now stop fighting the waters and concentrate of the conquests they enjoyed in the past!)
Unfortunately, the YouTube version seems to have cut off prematurely, and I will have to find the book somewhere to read the rest. Randall Monroe also has two other books out, and I may have to delve into them, although I feel that this one is a tough act to follow.
I hope that sometime, you will give this a read or a listen. It is easy to read a bit and stop, but I found it addictive.