How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems
Author Randall Munroe
Randall Munroe is the engineer/cartoonist behind that science positive comic strip xkcd with the stick figures that you may have seen before. They look like this:
I’ve been a fan of his for years now. He has an absurdist sense of humor and marvelous creativity, both of which are on full display in his latest book How To.
How to answers many every day and not so every day questions such as how to dig a hole or how to mail a package from space. The answers are all scientifically sound however impractical they may be. Although in the case of mailing a package from space it turns out you may just be able to drop it out the airlock.
In the chapter How to Build a Lava Moat he explains how wide your moat would need to be in order to deter intruders, how deep it would need to be to maintain its structure, and how expensive it would be to maintain the heat needed to keep it glowing. See, it’s very important that your lava moat be glowing or it’s simply not as intimidating. He also explains how much energy would be needed to cool your house to a livable temperature with it so near that much lava.
No matter how ridiculous the question, science has the answer. The main appeal of this book is just how insane the questions can get. His creativity in coming up with weirder and weirder problems for science to solve is impressive.
He consults with experts when something isn’t in his particular niche. He contacted a former NASA astronaut and retired pilot about how to land a flying house under various extreme circumstances and convinced Serena Williams to hit tennis balls at her husbands drone, for science.
The book is laugh out loud funny but also educational. It’s nice to see an entertaining way to apply mathematical formulas. Maybe, somewhere, a young person reads this book and sees their potential as an engineer or other great mind. The applications found in this book are far more intriguing than text book calculations about how many watermelons you’d have if your neighbor’s horse ate six sevenths of your watermelons after you planted 57% more than last year’s yield of a 16th the national average of Cuba’s population per hectare for three quarters of your field and 68% more for the remaining quarter. Although those questions have always been equally bizarre.
Humorous nonfiction books are a favorite of mine if for no other reason than they get people thinking without them thinking about it. Curious minds will be roused by this book and we can always use more curious minds.
If you have read Randall Munroe’s other books I can assure you this one is much more like his first, What if?, in that it is truly readable. His second book, Thing Explainer, is very interesting and informative but it’s pages of blueprints with no narrative. How To, is entertaining enough to sit down and read for an hour without feeling bored. And of course it still has pictures.
Like this one that really tickled me from the chapter How to Win and Election. However this one is how to lose one:
He called in for statistics from the biggest polling agencies and asked for the few things that almost everyone could agree on, that picture is all the opposite of that.
I can fully recommend this book even to people who do not typically read nonfiction. It’s entertaining but also has short easy to digest chapters that you can pick up and put down without missing a beat. Read it in between your more serious books for when you need a little laugh.
5/5 Scientists 👩🔬👩🔬👩🔬👩🔬👩🔬
This book is featured on my list of 7 Nonfiction Book Gift Ideas.
For more illustrated science nonfiction check out Carbon: One Atom’s Odyssey.
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