New Nonfiction: 23 February 2015
Double blow for nonfiction.

If a book is written about hypothetical science questions... long will it hold my interest before I decide, meh, that's enough of this?

The answer is: about 130 pages.

Last year I saw Randall Munroe's book What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions pop up in a lot of reviews and on a lot of "Best of" lists (go over to and check out their downloadable "best of nonfiction for 2014" spreadsheet--it's pretty high up on that list). And I thought, okay, I don't read enough science (or math).* Let's try it.

So I brought it home, and yeah, it is interesting. Quite interesting. And amusing, very amusing, in parts. Munroe (according to the handy-dandy book jacket) is evidently the creator of the webcomic xkcd, where people ask him absurd hypothetical questions and he answers them, to the best of his ability. Here's one:

"Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?"

And here's part of the answer:

"I was sort of surprised to find that the answer was yes!  But to really do it right, you'll want to talk to the Russians.

The principle here is pretty simple. If you fire a bullet forward, the recoil pushes you back. So if you fire downward, the recoil should push you up.

The first question we have to answer is 'can a gun even lift its own weight?' If a machine gun weighs ten pounds but produces only 8 pounds of recoil when firing, it won't be able to lift itself off the ground, let alone lift itself plus a person...

Despite growing up in the South, I'm not really a firearms expert, so to help answer this question, I got in touch with an acquaintance in Texas." And then there's a note, and the note at the bottom of the page says this:

"Judging by the amount of ammunition they had lying around their house ready to measure and weigh for me, Texas has apparently become some kind of Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic war zone." (p. 68.)

Now that's witty. And some of the questions and answers, like "If every human somehow simply disappeared from the face of the Earth, how long would it be before the last artificial light source would go out?" are downright fascinating. So yeah, it was kind of fun. But at some point I do weary of reading what basically boils down to science factoids, even if they are written well. And because they are all hypotheticals, well, I did catch myself thinking, good lord, only a guy would have this much time and energy to expend on fantastical science hypotheticals.** But that was not a very charitable thought.

I really enjoyed the 130 pages I read, but I'm taking it back to the library with another 170 pages untouched. For my money, I still like a good old-fashioned terrifying biological read, like Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex or David Quammen's Spillover.

*Mainly because I never understood most of the science classes I took, and I wasn't all that interested (which was most likely the biggest part of the problem).

**I'm also currently reading Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things To Me, which, at least while I'm reading it, is making me a bit frustrated with the male gender.