Monroe's latest What-If book, is
What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd
What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical
Questions Hardcover – September 13, 2022 · Kindle $15.99 Read with Our
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(Goodreads so far rates it at 4.5)
(Hey, the amazon site does have a 'look inside' feature for the kindal
Randall Munroe Is Back to Answer Your Impossible Questions
The xkcd author and former NASA engineer tackles our questions about
science education, solvable climate issues, and his latest What If? book.
PHOTOGRAPH: ADRIANNE MATHIOWETZ
WHAT IF YOU wanted to visit the sun? That seems like a bad idea—unless
you want to melt, or at the very least, deeply damage your retinas. But
according to Randall Munroe, the brains behind the xkcd webcomic and the
What If? books and blog, it all depends on the length of time that you
decide to make a trip and where you go.
After leaving his engineering job at NASA in 2006, Munroe began working
full time on the stick figure-based xkcd, which ranges from romantic
quips to acerbic jokes about the state of scientific publishing. It has
since turned into a juggernaut of popular culture, serving as a teaching
tool in physics classrooms and a universal medium for science fair
students to giggle over. Along with xkcd, Munroe also began a blog
called What If, where he would answer questions posed by fans about
how many calories a T. rex unleashed in New York City would need to
how much force Yoda could actually output.
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COURTESY OF PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE
The blog led to the 2014 book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to
Absurd Hypothetical Questions, a collection of bizarre queries that
Munroe doggedly researched and answered. By tying together a combination
of metric conversions, expert advice, basic scientific principles, comic
illustrations, and a little bit of common sense, Munroe found that he
could provide a real answer to someone who maybe wanted to build a Lego
brick bridge connecting London and New York, or wanted to know what
would happen if you grabbed a mole (6.022 x 1023 units) of moles (the
Scott Kelly Answers Astronaut Questions From Twitter
The sheer quantity of additional head-scratching questions that followed
has now led him to What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to
Absurd Hypothetical Questions, which publishes today. For Munroe, very
few questions are off-limits (there are sections titled “Weird and
Worrying”), and even seemingly simple conundrums lead to the most
fascinating of rabbit holes. WIRED sat down for an interview with Munroe
to chat about some of these rabbit holes, how to talk about science, and
why tire rubber is bad for you (and the planet). This interview has been
condensed and edited for clarity.
WIRED: How has it been, the past couple of years, writing What If? 2
with a pandemic happening—with a spotlight being shone on science in
It’s definitely been tricky, because it’s one of the big science
communication problems that is suddenly very apparent to everyone: Oh
no, we have this scientific information, and then we need a whole bunch
of people to act based on it. How do we get it across to them? How do we
figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing?
It’s very similar to climate change, where you have a whole bunch of
scientists who figured out this thing and then a whole bunch of people
who are not really on the same page with them. You have to try to get
them to meet each other somehow. You can get people some of the way
there. But the mismatch between where people are and where scientists
are is still going to be frustrating, because they’re never going to be
in quite the same place.
You’ve been doing science communication work for a long time, in terms
of explaining really complex things. Have you found any strategies to
help people understand these complicated concepts?
One of the trickiest things about talking to people about something cool
that you've learned how to do, or that you've learned about—whether it's
science or something else—is that it’s hard to remember what it's like
to not know something. It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of the
people you’re trying to talk to. It’s like a Magic Eye picture or an
optical illusion: You can look at it for a while, and you don’t see it
and you don’t see it—and then you see it. Then it’s really hard to not
Sometimes scientists will use language that’s really tricky or
specialized without realizing that not everyone knows, for example, what
an oxidizer is. You want to talk in the language that people will
understand. And that's true anywhere—whether it's to other scientists or
people who aren't scientists. But it's hard to do that without being
condescending. People really struggle with this, because they'll say,
“Okay, well, I'll really dumb this down. I'll really make this like I'm
talking to a child.” I think people can tell when they're being
So the way I always try to think about it is: Don't think about it as if
people aren't smart. Think about it like people are busy. They have all
this stuff going on. You have a moment of their attention on this thing.
Whatever else they're also paying attention to is also important. This
is a person who's interested, who maybe doesn't have the background, but
they’re perfectly capable of understanding whatever it is I am trying to
explain. But I only have a moment of their time. What’s the really
important thing to get across here?
Why did you decide to write a sequel to What If?
When people would send me questions I would feel really compelled to
start researching them, whether or not I was going to write an article
about it. So people would send me questions— sometimes even before I
started doing *What If?—*that I didn't have a plan to write up or
anything. But they asked the question, and I'm like, Huh, I've never
thought about that. That's really interesting. Okay, well, I think the
answer is probably this—right? And then I'm like, Wait, I'm not sure
that's right. And then I can't rest until I know whether my first
impulse was right or not.
The questions have, I think, gotten stranger overall, as people have
realized that it maybe is possible to answer some of these. I've been
just compulsively getting sucked into researching one question after
another, and I'm really excited to share some of the results.
One of the things you wrote about was what happens if you’re transported
to the surface of the sun for a nanosecond. The answer to that question
was so surprising—because you’d probably be fine. (Reader, you’ll have
to read the book to find out the rest.)
There are a lot of questions where I realize I'm not sure about the
answer, but I have a sense that there must be some reason why that's not
how it works. One simple example was someone who said: “When I put new
tires on my car, the treads are a quarter inch thick or whatever. Then,
when I took them off, they're bald. The treads seem like they’re getting
thinner—so why aren't the roads getting thicker with rubber?”
Then I'm like: Okay, well, I don't actually know the answer to that. So
I started looking into whether used tires really are that much lighter.
It turns out that yes, they are. And where all that rubber goes is
Everywhere? Like, the rubber disintegrates and flies everywhere?
A lot of it gets left on the road, but it gets washed off. It also gets
released as these aerosolized particles, which just drift on the wind or
land in the water. You can find concentrations of tire rubber in fish
tissues and in streams near roads. We’re not sure how bad any of it
is—we’re still figuring that out.
There's one paper from a couple years ago that linked one of the
chemicals in tire rubber to salmon die-offs in the Pacific Northwest.
Maybe it's some specific chemical that we could swap out easily if we
can figure out what it is and determine that it’s definitely causing
this problem. Or maybe it's just that most of the rubbers have these bad
consequences for water, in which case, that's a pretty big problem
because no one has figured out a good way to make tires not leave rubber
behind. It’s a problem that desperately needs current research, that we
don't have a great solution for.
There are some people who have these wild schemes involving a thing that
will capture the rubber from the tire, like a vacuum cleaner sitting
behind the tire. I know, it sounds really silly, and they’re like, “We
know this is silly, but it’s the least silly thing we could come up
with.” This seems like a really unsolvable problem. I have an
illustration of, if we put the car in a giant plastic hamster ball and
then drive it around.
We would save the world from being consumed by rubber, in that case.
Yeah. Until we find out that the hamster ball is leaving a residue on
Reading through What If? 2, I’m honestly just really curious about your
research process. In one of the chapters, you talk about how an MRI
scanner near a hospital helipad had messed up an actual helicopter. How
do you find those instances?
Oh, man, I don’t remember how I stumbled on that. It was a report on a
helicopter incident where the helicopter was coming in to land, and the
magnetic field from the MRI scanner next to the helipad had messed with
the helicopter’s navigational equipment.
I was first just reading about how MRIs have got really big magnets in
them, and thinking: I know that the magnetic field extends out away from
them. It can’t extend out forever, because when I drop my keys, they
don’t go flying off to the nearest MRI.
So the first question is: How far out does that magnetic field go? That
I could figure out by looking at MRI manuals. I was reading through
these guides, and they were like: “If you have this kind of equipment,
you need to put it this far away. And if you have this kind of
equipment, it needs to be this far away. Here’s a diagram showing the
zones around the machine where you shouldn’t have any magnetic tape
equipment. You can’t have credit cards inside this distance.” And then
it would mention that this far out, you might get interference with
sensitive magnetic sensors.
That was neat, just realizing that in a hospital, you might have lots of
different equipment, so there’s a whole complicated process for figuring
out what can go how close to an MRI … and then I would just start
Googling “helicopter MRI,” “MRI helicopter report,” trying to figure
out: Has this ever come up? And then was sort of surprised to find that
there was an incident report.
Is there anything recently that you’ve read that has really excited you,
that you wish more people knew about?
I feel like all I am is a pile of facts that I’m excited to tell people
about. There was a chapter on disintegrating a block of iron. Someone
was like: “What if I vaporize a block of iron in my yard? What
consequences does that have?”
I know that if you vaporize iron it’ll react with the oxygen in the air
and form iron oxide, which will precipitate out into little particles
that float around. But I don’t know what that does. Is that good? Is
And so I ended up getting in touch with an expert in iron transport in
the atmosphere, Natalie Mahowald, who worked on the IPCC Climate report.
I asked: “Okay, what happens if you just inject a bunch of iron into the
air?” Which turns out to be an interesting question that they’ve looked
at for climate and ocean fertilization reasons. Something she said that
stuck out was: “If you live downwind, and this iron vapor comes through
and you breathe it, it’ll be bad for you.”
And I asked: “Is that because it’s a metal? Is it toxic? Is it bad for
She said something along the lines of: “It’s not that it’s a metal, it’s
just that your lungs are supposed to breathe air. And there’s just not a
lot of particulates you can breathe in that are good for you.”
Huh! It doesn’t really matter what it is. It’s just not air.
It’s funny how often that’s come up since then. We think of toxins, or
we think about how these chemicals are bad for you, or these substances
are bad for you. But ever since I saw it framed that way, I’ve realized
how many different areas of life where the question of, “Are these small
particles that you're breathing in bad for you?” has, again and again,
the answer of, “Anything that's not air is not great for you.”
Indoor air pollution is this gigantic problem. Particulate air
pollution—we’ve made big strides on dealing with it at least in the
United States and a lot of countries. But still, soot in the air is just
so bad for you in so many different areas of health in such an easily
quantifiable way that it’s one of the most tractable and solvable
problems. We know that if we spend this money and do this thing to make
it so people are breathing in fewer tiny particles, it will make their
health better and make life better. Everything is so complicated, but
that isn’t complicated. Breathing in fewer bits of dust is good for you.
Seems like some things are more complicated than they seem, and others
are much simpler than they seem.
Yeah. It’s like, Oh, I need to know chemistry here. No, you just need to
know that you should breathe air. Other stuff is not good to breathe.
For the past few years, I’ve been trained as a research scientist in
biology. As a researcher, it often feels like one can be kind of
pigeonholed into the types of questions you can ask. It seems really
wonderful, in your job and in writing this book, that you get to explore
I remember when I was finishing my undergraduate degree in physics. Like
everyone who finished their undergraduate degree, I thought, Crap, what
am I going to do now? I was thinking about going to grad school. And I
talked to my advisers, who were very encouraging. I did have one
adviser—I will not name names—who was like: “Close the door for a
moment. You don’t have to go to grad school.”
One thing that they said was that once you finish a physics degree—which
is very general—at this point now, you need to start really
specializing. I remember one of my advisers saying that you can't just
work on this problem over in this part of physics and this problem over
in this part of physics and this math thing—you can’t have all the candy
in the candy store.
But I found that I would get sucked into a problem, work on it, and then
once I got the answer I was looking for, it would completely drop out of
my mind. I really would have trouble picking one thing and drilling down
into it. It’s been really exciting that answering people’s questions has
sort of given me an excuse to jump around from one thing to another.
That’s been a lot of fun.
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