I bring you a non-fiction book that falls into the category of “out-there”, “scientific” and “fun”. You might already know the author, but it was a first for me. Probably not the last.
How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems by Randall Munroe
AN INSTANT #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“How To will make you laugh as you learn…With How To, you can’t help but appreciate the glorious complexity of our universe and the amazing breadth of humanity’s effort to comprehend it. If you want some lightweight edification, you won’t go wrong with How To.” —CNET
“[How To] has science and jokes in it, so 10/10 can recommend.” —Simone Giertz
The world’s most entertaining and useless self-help guide from the brilliant mind behind the wildly popular webcomic xkcd, the bestsellers What If? and Thing Explainer, and What If? 2, coming September 13, 2022
For any task you might want to do, there’s a right way, a wrong way, and a way so monumentally complex, excessive, and inadvisable that no one would ever try it. How To is a guide to the third kind of approach. It’s full of highly impractical advice for everything from landing a plane to digging a hole.
Bestselling author and cartoonist Randall Munroe explains how to predict the weather by analyzing the pixels of your Facebook photos. He teaches you how to tell if you’re a baby boomer or a 90’s kid by measuring the radioactivity of your teeth. He offers tips for taking a selfie with a telescope, crossing a river by boiling it, and powering your house by destroying the fabric of space-time. And if you want to get rid of the book once you’re done with it, he walks you through your options for proper disposal, including dissolving it in the ocean, converting it to a vapor, using tectonic plates to subduct it into the Earth’s mantle, or launching it into the Sun.
By exploring the most complicated ways to do simple tasks, Munroe doesn’t just make things difficult for himself and his readers. As he did so brilliantly in What If?, Munroe invites us to explore the most absurd reaches of the possible. Full of clever infographics and fun illustrations, How To is a delightfully mind-bending way to better understand the science and technology underlying the things we do every day.
About the author:
Randall Munroe is the creator of the webcomic xkcd and author of xkcd: Volume 0. Randall was born in Easton, Pennsylvania, and grew up outside Richmond, Virginia. After studying physics at Christopher Newport University, he got a job building robots at NASA Langley Research Center. In 2006 he left NASA to draw comics on the internet full time, and has since been nominated for a Hugo Award three times. The International Astronomical Union recently named an asteroid after him: asteroid 4942 Munroe is big enough to cause mass extinction if it ever hits a planet like Earth.
I couldn’t resist when I read the description of this book, and it does live up to the expectations, although it is difficult to know what the expectations are because each person’s ideas of what a bad idea (or what a ridiculous idea is) vary enormously.
I am not an expert in Physics, Maths, or any of the subjects much of what is discussed in this book falls under (apart from having strange and bizarre ideas, although I think all of us have those), but I do not think one needs to be an expert to enjoy the book. Although it is true that some of the analyses and the in-depth explanations might go over one’s head, the concepts, the ideas, and the way the author goes about taking any of his ideas to the limit are fascinating. He doesn’t hesitate before contacting true experts (a test pilot and astronaut, Col. Chris Hadfield; a tennis star, Serena Williams, just to name a couple of them) to ask them the most bizarre or outlandish questions. And, credit where credit is due, they are gracious enough to engage with him and patient enough to keep going and answer all of his questions to a point where most of us would have given up.
This is a book for people looking for something different and amusing, especially those of us who look at something, or have an idea pop up into our heads and can’t help but wonder: “what if?” I also kept thinking that authors and artists looking for inspiration and ideas would have a field day with this book. I can imagine science-fiction writers smiling as they read some of the suggestions and possibilities Munroe comes up with and thinking about plenty of uses for them, although I am sure many other people will have their imaginations ignited by some of the wonderfully bizarre ideas contained here as well.
Munroe also includes some of his well-known illustrations, which often emphasise how ludicrous some of the ideas are, making them even funnier. Those looking for more detailed information, also have a section of references (many easy-to-check online articles), an index, and a section of acknowledgments, and the book is peppered with notes, some even funnier than the original explanation. This means that the last 30% of the book or so is back matter, so the actual body of the book is not as long as it might seem. It is also divided up into 28 chapters, subdivided into smaller sections, so this is a book ideal for people with little time to read, who prefer to read bite-size content that doesn’t require sustained attention for long periods of time.
To give you an idea about the kinds of subjects discussed in this book, I will offer you a sample of a few of the chapter titles:
Chapter 1: How to Jump Really High, Chapter 2: How to Throw a Pool Party, Chapter 3: How to Dig a Hole, Chapter 4: How to Play the Piano, Chapter 5: How to Make an Emergency Landing …. Chapter 9: How to Build a Lava Moat… Chapter 16: How to Power Your House (on Earth), Chapter 17: How to Power Your House (on Mars)…
Do not expect to close this book armed with practical advice you can put to good use, although… one never knows!
A note of warning: The book is very USA-centred, and most of the examples given come from the USA, as do the units of measurement. I would have appreciated it if they could have offered the values in SI units as well, as I am more familiar with those. Perhaps in future editions.
If you like books that make you think beyond the usual and that are not afraid to take things to the extreme or to push the limits of the ridiculous, I recommend this one. And I’ll be exploring other titles by the author in the future.
Thanks to the author for this book, and thanks to all of you for reading, commenting, clicking, sharing, etc. Don’t forget to keep smiling!