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Nerd-Inspiring Book Review: What If? and Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

As a Nerd and a Nerd-builder, myself, my beach read this summer was Randall Munroe’s New York Times best-selling What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. What can I say? When I have quiet time on an airplane (or “sky boat,” in Thing Explainer parlance) or the beach, I like to stretch my brain. It relaxes me.

On the recommendation of another Nerd parent, I also bought Munroe’s follow-up book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.

If you don’t already know Munroe’s science question-and-answer blog What If and webcomic xkcd, I encourage you to check it out. For parents who want to inspire curious and passionate Nerds, the former NASA roboticist’s work is basically a Rosetta stone that clearly communicates even the most complex STEM material in the simplest, most entertaining terms.

"Thing Explainer" Book Review

A Nerd Conversation Starter

Munroe calls himself the “Dear Abby for Mad Scientists.” In What If?, like in his blog, he formulates answers to a broad array of science-based questions people have thrown at him on his website. Armed with science, logic, and a ton of good-humored creativity, he methodically explains both the possible and seemingly impossible.

I brought What If? on vacation, not only because I thought I would enjoy it, but also because I knew my kids would too. The book’s subtitle let’s you know exactly what you’re in for once you journey beyond the front cover.

My kids and I are huge fans of the Mythbusters TV series. What If takes busting myths and crazy, hypothesis-testing to places the Discovery Channel show couldn’t possibly go. And even though some of the book’s science and terminology was a bit beyond the reach of my 9-year-old RocketteGirl (even more so for 7-year-old Lightning McQueen), the questions are supremely entertaining and the material is presented in a way that made it easily accessible even when translated through this Imperfect Dad.

All I had to do to get their brains whirring was to read them a question and see what they came up with even before reading the chapter. Then, while reading the chapter, I could give them the highlights. And we’d all have a good laugh at the results.

So, don’t worry if you’re not a “serious” scientist or mathematician yourself. With help from other subject-matter experts along the way, Munroe does an excellent job conveying the hardcore science of putting unusual objects into extreme physical circumstances. He does so in relatable terms as well as with funny stick-figure drawings people have come to know from xkcd.

Finding Answers and Achieving Desired Results For the Implausible

Like Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman do on Mythbusters, when faced with an implausible scenario, Munroe often explores what physical circumstances would have to exist in order to achieve the predicted results. One example is when trying to figure out a reasonable response to this: “In the movie 300, they shoot arrows up into the sky and they seemingly blot out the sun. Is this possible, and how many arrows would it take?”

Sometimes, Munroe is forced to make ballpark estimates and educated guesses after thoroughly researching answers, including using ordinary resources like cookbooks, DVD movies, and Google. This makes the material even more relatable to us head-scratching readers. Not to mention hilarious.

Here’s a sample of some of the other wacky What If questions Munroe analyzes:

  • What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light? (This one did not end well for anyone involved.)
  • How much force power can Yoda output?
  • Is there enough energy to move the entire current human population off-planet?
  • If two immortal people were placed on opposite sides of an uninhabited Earthlike planet, how long would it take them to find each other?
  • How many unique English tweets are possible? How long would it take for the population of the world to read them all out loud?

Do Not Talk About Fight Club

Some hypotheticals Munroe deemed so insane, they defied answers. He features these out-of-bounds questions periodically throughout the book in a segment called “Weird (and Worrying) Questions From the What If? Box.” Because he does such a good job exploring all the variables and possibilities of the questions he does answer, I often found myself a little disappointed Munroe balked at some of the worrisome ones, like these:

  • Would it be possible to get your teeth to such a cold temperature that they would shatter upon drinking a hot cup of coffee?
  • How fast would a human have to run in order to be cut in half by a cheese-cutting wire?
  • If a Venus fly trap could eat a person, about how long would it take for the human to be fully de-juiced and absorbed?

One last thing that made What If a good Nerd parent read, was its stand-alone, easily digestible chapters. I could pick it up and put it down every few minutes when the kids called me to hunt for seashells or watch them do flips into the pool.

For What If’s ability to stretch the minds of parents and kids alike, I’d have to say the book is an excellent Nerd choice. It’s funny, challenging, mind-blowing, scientific problem-solving fun for the whole family. Best of all, What If demonstrates just how impactful STEM subjects are – from climate change, to space exploration, to alternative energy sources, to probability and population dynamics – as well as how easy it is to engage kids (and their “clueless” parents) in all matters of science and technology.

Nerd Rating: 5 Nerds


Thing Explainer

A great companion book (coffee table book, really) to What If is Munroe’s collection of annotated blueprints called Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. With richly detailed but straightforward design, the stick-figure artist lays out some amazing “exploded” diagrams to help readers – “age 5 to 105” – grasp some complex engineering and science marvels, from to my favorite of the bunch, “The Pieces Everything Is Made Of” (aka, the periodic table of the elements) to “Red World Space Car” (aka, the Mars rover) to “Writing Sticks” (aka, ballpoint pens).

The best part about Thing Explainer is that it uses only the 1,000 (or “ten hundred”) most often used words to create its explanations. The word list is included as an appendix.

Here are some other sample items and the beginning of Munroe’s simplified descriptions:

  • Smartphones (“Hand Computer”): “These machines began as radios for talking out loud to people who were far away.”
  • The Internet (“Computer Building”): “When you use a computer to listen to songs or watch movies, sometimes they’re on your computer, but often they’re ‘in the cloud.’”
  • Dish Washers (“Box that Cleans Food Holders”): “This box is a machine that cleans plates and cups by throwing water at them.”
  • Evolution (“Tree of Life”): “All life (that we know of) is part of a family.”

I could’ve done without the page on “Stuff in the Earth We Can Burn” (fossil fuels), but overall, I thought the book was fascinating and a must for any budding scientist, tinkering Nerd, or curious parent.

Thing Explainer is another great conversation starter and a book you and your kids will likely refer back to, time and again.

Nerd Rating: 5 Nerds5-nerd-rating

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  • Reply
    September 19, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    I may have to get myself one of these books as they sound exactly like something I’d read.

  • Reply
    September 19, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    Sounds just like a book I’d love to read. I may have to pick them up.

    • Reply
      Scott Beller
      September 28, 2016 at 6:14 pm

      If you’re into Mythbusters or Neil de Grasse Tyson, you absolutely should. You’ll laugh while you and your little Nerd learn some cool stuff!

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