Saturday, December 31, 2016
The physics of absurdity
If you haven't heard of XKCD, welcome to the internet. There's lots of porn and we like cats here. Glad we got that out of the way. But I brought it up so I should explain it - XKCD is the long-running (Jesus, it's been publishing since 2005) stick-figure comic by Randall Munroe, a physicist, programmer, and former NASA roboticist who has decided to bless the internet with aggressively hilarious cartoons. And, you know, some cartoons that just make you want to cry forever or hold your head between your knees to get over the vertigo they've caused. He's kind of amazing is what I'm trying to say, and I fucking love his comics.
Well it turns out he does other stuff too! Mostly other hilarious writing stuff for the purposes of this review.
Last year for Christmas my sister got me a copy of Munroe's book What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. She told me about a month ago that if I hadn't read my Christmas presents from last year that I wouldn't get any books for Christmas this year and I was shocked and dismayed when my family kept their promise - I got only two books this holiday season, one of which is an illustrated copy of a book I'd already read and the other is a book of Beatles music for soprano recorder (because I'm determined to be a reprehensible person in unique and interesting ways). So it was about a a month ago that I sat down and started trying to move through What If? in a vain attempt to convince my family that they should give me a stack of new books.
Well the plan as a whole didn't work but getting through the book was a breeze. I really had planned on reading it earlier in the year but it never fit into the schedule I was trying to maintain of reading marginalized authors. Finally I managed to fit it in and it was a delight.
The absurd hypothetical questions were collected through the XKCD website and most of them do a good job of reflecting the reading community of the comic. The questions are funny and interesting and once you've heard the question you have to ask why you never thought to ask it yourself. Munroe's answers are dry, funny, probably technically correct, and have a lot of fun playing with the physics they explore. Probably my favorite exploration in an answer has to do with a bullet with the density of a neutron star; my favorite question is one that asks about an absurdly large drop of water.
There's a wonderful mix of seriousness and sincerity in the pages and that's a lot of what I love about Munroe's work - he does a great job of making you feel an effervescent joy for life while also reminding you of what a magnificent gift the world around us is and that it is a solemn duty for all of us to care for and explore the world we live in.
You hear a lot about Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku as ambassadors of science who bring physics and the questions of the universe down to the level of the common man but I really wish I heard more people talking about Randall Munroe in the same way. He's sincere and he can be sarcastic but he never comes across as condescending, something I think almost everyone is sick of in Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
If you think the world is amazing but think that physics texts are generally too dry I can't recommend What If? enough. It's perfect for someone who wants to imagine everyone in the world aiming a laser pointer at the moon, and an excellent warning if your standard response to a problem is to say "what if we added more power?"
Munroe, Randall. What If? Houghton Mifflin Harcort. New York: New York. 2014.