Randall Munroe

John Murray

2014 | 336pp | £14.99

ISBN 9781848549579

Much of the job of teaching science is not so much imparting facts as getting students to think like scientists. By the same token, learning physics is not so much about memorising equations, but about thinking like a physicist.

There is nobody in the public eye who thinks out loud like a physicist quite as much as Randall Munroe, author of the xkcd webcomic. What if is an extended version of his weekly online blog on the topic.

The book’s cover promises ‘serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions’ and the rest of What if more than lives up to its billing. The questions range across the sciences from the whimsical to the disturbing, and include whether you can boil a cup of tea by stirring it, what would happen if you lost all of your DNA, if you could live on a very dense asteroid like the Little Prince and what would happen if you made a periodic table out of large cubes of the elements themselves.

Many of the longer answers have already been published on Munroe’s website, but there is also plenty of new material. Most importantly, the book is very funny indeed, with the mouseover texts and popups of the website transferring smoothly to a print world of captions and footnotes. I was alarmed to find myself holding my finger over some of the uncaptioned drawings and wondering why the mouseover text wasn’t appearing.

In general, the production values are very high with the author’s comic talents pervading all aspects of the physical book. I’ve certainly never laughed at decorative endpapers before. It is very unfortunate that some of the equations, for example the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, have been mangled at typesetting. That caveat aside, I would recommend this book for any scientist or science-curious reader, especially as an invaluable introduction to scientific thinking for younger readers. I anticipate many will wake up to this book in their stocking on Christmas morning.

Purchase What if: serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions from Amazon.co.uk