Randall Munroe’s original What If? Serious Scientific Answers To Absurd Hypothetical Questions first graced The Quill To Live in our “5 Lighthearted Reads For Dreary Times” post.
In late 2022, Randall Munroe released the wonderfully named What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers To Absurd Hypothetical Questions, so I thought it only right to give the sequel the spotlight in a full review.
Truth be told, there’s not all that much to review here, because your mileage with What If? 2 will entirely depend on what tickles your fancy. Munroe’s writing is pithy and engaging. He’s able to condense really difficult concepts into words the layman can understand. A former NASA roboticist, the man has an iron grip on physics and plenty of other scientific fields. Each chapter is equal parts palatable to the masses and enlightening to those of us who aren’t entrenched in science.
The title of What If? 2—well, the full title, which I won’t repeat ‘cause it’s a lot of letters, but not as many as I’ve already used to type this aside. Dammit!—tells you exactly what you’re in for. Here’s a smattering of questions included within the tome, submitted by Munroe to his fans and readers of xkcd, his webcomic/blog:
- At what point in human history were there too many (English) books to be able to read them all in one lifetime?
- My daughter—age 4½—maintains she wants a billion-story building. It turns out not only is it hard to help her appreciate this size, I am not at all able to explain all of the other difficulties you’d have to overcome.
- If every country’s airspace extended up forever, which country would own the largest percentage of the galaxy at any given time?
- If the Earth were a massive eye, how far would it see?
- How many people would it take to build Rome in a day?
That’s the kind of thing you’re in for. My guess is—this being a book blog and all—the first question intrigues you at the very least. I can assure you even the least-interesting sounding questions result in wacky answers, all answered from as clear and precise a scientific foundation as Munroe can give them.
Munroe’s voice is breezy and open; he’s willing to accept practically any concept at face value and explore its implications. The cartoons feel like a bonus. His stick-figure drawings are good for a laugh and for supporting the written words that surround them. The result is a well-honed structure of “question and answer, with cartoon interludes.” What If? 2 is an easy and absurd read, but by the end, I felt marginally smarter thanks to how adeptly Munroe brandishes the tools in his arsenal.
I’d wager a guess that What If? 2 and its predecessor are an easy fit for sci-fi fans. The book occupies that tenuous space between science writing and full-fledged fiction. The latter quality is lent to it by the preposterous questions. What If? 2 is also readable in chunks, a few questions (aka chapters) at a time. That’s how I read it—interspersed between chapters of Tress of the Emerald Sea or during quick chunks of time that weren’t conducive to a full fiction novel—and I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish.
No review score today. I hope instead that I can help you decide whether What If? 2 is right for you. My guess? The answer is a resounding yes.