What if (I read more books this year)?


I read many books in 2014. Some of them I read so many times that I could probably recite them word-for-word. These books typically involved a gruffalo or the offspring of a gruffalo, however. And if there was no gruffalo to be seen, you could bet there would be some other sort of talking animal taking centre stage. I realise now that I only read one book for myself in 2014, albeit a very good one. Even though I probably should have read To Kill a Mockingbird many years earlier, I finally got round to it. Thanks to Mike Watkinson for persuading me at the end of 2013 that it really should be the next book I picked up. And who knows, there might even be a sequel; or maybe not.

I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, but I figured a pretty easy one for 2015 would be to read more non-gruffalo-type books than I did last year (don’t worry, I will still read plenty of gruffalo-y ones to my daughter). And hence that picture at the top of this post – that’s the line-up for this year. After tweeting that pic, Freda suggested (instructed? demanded?) that I provide blog reviews…

I did reply to say that they would be brief ones if I did them… and because I’ve just finished the first book, here is a (brief) review of what if?:

It was bloody brilliant.

What’s that? Too brief? OK then… if you don’t know what ‘what if?’ is, then stop reading this blog post now, and go over here.

OK, now that you’re back, I’ll continue. Written by Randall Munroe, the creator of the equally-bloody-brilliant xkcd webcomic, what if? aims to provide, in Munroe’s words, ‘serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions’ – questions that are submitted to him through his website. These include questions such as whether you would need to dive to the bottom of a spent-nuclear-fuel pool to experience a fatal dose of radiation (answer: yes; you’d actually be fine at the surface) and what would happen if you built a periodic table from cube-shaped bricks, where each brick is actually made from the element it represents in the table (answer: it would get a bit apocalyptic)?

My one quibble is that there are a few simple chemical mistakes (ammonia isn’t an element, the spelling of technetium isn’t as constant as it should be, and its symbol is obviously not ‘Te’), but they are easily forgiven when you read passages like this:

There’s no material safety data sheet for astatine. If there were, it would just be the word “NO” scrawled over and over in charred blood.

There are a few other chemistry-related questions tackled by Munroe, including one of my absolute favourite ‘what if?’ questions: What would happen if you were to gather a mole (unit of measurement) of moles (the small furry critter) in one place? Well, if we did that here on Earth, the planet’s surface would apparently end up covered with a layer of moles 80 km deep. If we collected a mole of moles in space instead, this would result in a mole planet just a little bit larger than our moon. That’s a lot of moles (the furry ones, not the chemistry ones).

Other questions I really enjoyed in the book: If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn’t the common cold be wiped out? (answer: no); What would happen if someone’s DNA suddenly vanished? (answer: it doesn’t end well… what did you expect?!); What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person (answer: it’s hard to know for sure); When (if ever) did the Sun finally set on the British Empire? (answer: well, maybe you should read the book to find that one out).

Many of the questions are truly absurd, but the answers are truly fascinating and are laid out step-by-step in glorious (and easy-to-follow) detail. But it’s more than just that, the book is delightfully funny – not least the illustrations and the footnotes. In answering a question about how many Lego bricks it would take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York, Munroe uses six footnotes to discuss different styling of the word ‘Lego’ – and it’s brilliant. Just like the book itself.

Go read ‘what if?’ the book. And if you don’t do that, at least go and surf through the entries at the website – there are questions and answers there that are not included in the book (and vice versa), including another chemistry-themed favourite of mine: Extreme Boating.

Next up on my reading list: The Upside of Irrationality – deposited in my in-tray one day by Claire Hansell, who told me that it was a good book and that I should read it. OK then.

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3 Responses to What if (I read more books this year)?

  1. If you’re gonna keep reading all these books, I know of a place that likes to publish reviews. Gruffalos are out of scope, however.

  2. What if? is wonderful for almost any age. I bought the book for my physicist father and he read it through in one sitting. When I received the book for Christmas, I didn’t get through more than one chapter before it disappeared into the hands of my 12 and 14 year old sons. They each read it through, laughing at the answers, discussing them together, and coming to me with lots of great curious science questions.

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