Book Review: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If Book Header

Before I get into the main body of my review I have one thing to say: How dare you, Randall Munroe!? You cannot put a T-Rex being lowered into the sarlacc pit on the cover of your book that promises to provide answers to ridiculous scenarios and then not address this situation. How dare you!? I am so very disappointed…

Whew. Glad I got that off of my chest.

Though I will never forgive Munroe for this, I am big enough a person to admit that bitterness aside, Munroe is a genius. The premise of his book alone is an amazing idea, and that’s not even considering that he then has the intelligence to actually follow through and provide complex answers to reader questions, often keeping them enjoyable enough for less textured brains such as my own to understand.

Take one of the first questions addressed in the book: “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?” Thank you for your questions, Ellen, and here is my answer for you: you would swing and miss. Question answered. Yet Munroe manages to write an in-depth explanation for a few pages about how this would somehow lead to a cataclysmic event that would take out a large number of people. That was nowhere near my response! Why? Because I am a simpleton.

It didn’t take getting deep into this book for me to realize that I am not that intelligent of an individual. Half of the concepts Munroe brings up in his theorizing and extrapolating are far more complex than anything I ever studied in my high school science classes, and the miniscule amount of knowledge I somehow managed to desperately cling to did little to make a lot of the writing sensical. This is an unfortunate problem that arises while reading this book, and unfortunately it does hinder my enjoyment on more than one occasion. Especially when a lot of numbers and conversions are involved: the more numbers involved, the more my eyes glazed over.

In addition to just being smarter, something else that probably could have helped was not treating this as I do with most books, sitting down and reading for hours at a time. Instead I should have settled for a story or two a night, and I’ll probably revisit this book in the future to see if that helps. Especially since Munroe is a writer that is capable of making stuff fun to read, even if I don’t always understand what he’s saying. Referencing Firefly on occasion didn’t hurt. Nor does taking situations much further than expected. Just when you thought he had answered the question, he breaks out some more cause and effect lines of thought that I didn’t even think about. Again, because I’m stupid.

Basically, what I can say about What If? is that it helps to have a mind for the scientific, but it isn’t necessary. There just seems to be a strong correlation between previous knowledge and levels of understanding, leading to a lot of “wait, what?” moments on my end. I can’t exactly fault Munroe for my shortcomings, though, and he does his best to make these huge concepts accessible to all. So if the concept intrigues you, give What If? a go.

Final Grade:  3-3.5 out of 5      Follow @BewareOfTrees

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