How Randall Munroe Became the Guru of Absurd Science Questions

IIt’s a pretty safe bet that no one will fill the solar system with soup, up to the orbit of Jupiter. For one thing, it would take a lot of soup – 2 x 10 liters to the 39th power, which is also a value of 10 to the 42nd power calories, or more energy than the sun has given off in its entire life. So a solar solar system is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

However, this fact did not stop a five-year-old girl named Amelia from asking about the opportunity on the website xkcd.comhosted and written by Randall Munroe, 37, author of the 2014 bestseller. What if? and the just-released sequel What if? 2. As Amelia asked, Munro answered, devoting the opening chapter of the new book to the question of what he calls Soupiter. The answer, in short, isn’t pretty — involving a soup-based black hole that will engulf our entire solar system, destroy everything trapped within it, and cut through a tiny fraction of the Milky Way.

“I liked the specificity of the question,” says Munro. “I mean, why soup? The questions I get from little kids are always the best because they don’t come from adults who understand a lot. They just bring concepts together in surprising ways.”

There’s a little bit of Amelia in all of us – and Munro has made it his mission to satisfy our curiosity. What if? 2, like the original, is full of questions that are fantastic to ask, but perfectly—and tantalizingly—informative in their answers. If a T. Rex were to be released in New York, how many people would it have to eat per day to stay alive? (About half a person’s daily, or 55,000 calories worth.) Would you eat a cloud? (Maybe, but you’d have to squeeze out all the air first, and the cloud would have to start out no bigger than a house, since that size would hold about a liter of water, which is all a human stomach can hold at once.) How long would it take you to fill an olympic sized pool with your own saliva? (About 8,345 years, given that the average person produces about 500 milliliters of saliva per day.)

Questions everywhere What if? 2 are equal parts brilliant, crass and wonderfully absurd, and the answers are in-depth, deeply researched and great fun – not least because they’re accompanied by Munroe’s figurine artwork. Both books flowed naturally—albeit circuitously—from Munro’s earlier life.

A graduate of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, Munroe studied physics, mathematics, and computer engineering, and in his junior and senior years was able to land an internship at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. His work for NASA included developing 3D visualization and robotic navigation systems for a prototype Mars aircraft that Langley engineers are trying to develop.

“My job was to get the robot moving around the lab,” says Munro, “so I was less worried about navigating over rocks on Mars and more about dodging chairs and trying not to hit the kids of one of Langley’s executives. “

The work was stimulating enough—indeed, more stimulating than the time Munro spent in class at Christopher Newport, much of which he passed by drawing in the margins of his notebooks. “I wasn’t good at taking notes,” he says. “I drew things as I listened – inventions I wanted to create, or little figures running around having little battles.”

These scribbles eventually became something of a body of work, and Munro eventually decided she wanted to share them with the world through her own website. It was the frontier days of the Internet, when domain names were collected by the pile, and even the most imaginative names he could come up with turned out to be already claimed. Finally he decided that he would have to deal with a series of meaningless letters.

“I didn’t want anything with an O in it because that could be mistaken for a zero,” he says. “And I didn’t want anything with an L, because when it’s a lowercase letter, it can be mistaken for a one.” This drove him to utter nonsense xkcd.com— a domain he requested and quickly began filling with scanned versions of notebooks full of doodles that he shared with friends, who then began sharing them with their own friends — and the site’s following began to grow.

Much of the subject matter of the drawings involved math and science, and it wasn’t long before people were writing in with questions. “They were asking me things like, ‘My friend and I were debating whether Superman could dodge a bullet without creating a shockwave,'” says Munro. “Then they would add, ‘That doesn’t seem like a question that would bother a real scientist, and we both agreed that you seem like a good person to ask.’ Maybe I should have been offended, but the truth was that they were right, and so I was going to spend the next six hours researching these questions. (The answer, by the way, is that a bullet-dodging Superman could indeed create a shockwave — one that would certainly be devastating to the nearby residents of his hometown of Metropolis.)

Munro found that he quite enjoyed the hours he spent answering such fantastic inquiries, so he posted a note on the site calling for more questions and from them, the original What if? was born. The book became a sensation, translated into 35 languages ​​and reached number one in New York times bestseller list.

What if? 2 continues in the same vein, even including another question about a bullet – specifically, whether it would be possible to catch one fired straight up if you could somehow be positioned at the exact point where it reached the top of its arc and lost your speed. (The answer: yes, but it would be hot to the touch, so maybe wear a glove to handle it.)

Just because he’s playing with science doesn’t mean Munro isn’t serious about science, too, and he sometimes despairs that we live in an age of scientific illiteracy, or at the very least misinformation—with all kinds of false beliefs about vaccines in general, climate change, the age of the Earth, etc. He attributes some of this to simple confusion about what is true and what is not, and hopes that his work offers something of a judgment-free zone for people who feel at sea about science.

“Nobody wants to look like the only person in class who isn’t following what’s going on,” he says. “People tend to think, ‘Oh, I must not be smart enough for this.'” So I think it’s really important to understand the idea that everyone is confused about scientific ideas. The most accomplished scientists and non-scientists – we’re all just trying to figure things out, and it’s okay to be confused.

When Munro finds himself in a position to debunk misconceptions, he leans on the facts – presenting them as neutrally as possible. “To someone who thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old, I’d say, ‘Hey, have you seen this great paper? It’s about this really neat dig site and it shows how the ground has shifted and it was underground and now it’s above ground. It might not lead to a conversion moment, but I think it’s better to engage with people instead of talking down to them.”

But coming to terms with such third-rail politicized themes is not what occupies most of Munro’s mind space. This remains dedicated to the brand of fantasy it fills What if? 2. If the universe stopped expanding by now, for example, how long would it take you to reach its edge—assuming you obeyed a 65 mph speed limit? (4.8 x 10 years to the 17th power, or 35 million times the age of the universe from 13.8 billion years so far.) If you flew blind through the Milky Way, what would your chances be of hitting a star? (Only one in 10 billion—galaxies are mostly empty space.) How many continuously running toasters would it take to heat an average-sized home? (Surprisingly few – only about 20. If you decide to make toast in the process, you’ll be going through roughly 30 loaves per hour.)

Do you need this information? No. Are you happy, really, are you content? they have it? Almost certainly yes. Science isn’t easy, but in Munro’s capable hands it sure can be fun.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger c [email protected].

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