What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
This book is a collection of answers to hypothetical questions.
These questions were submitted to me through my website, where—in addition to serving as a sort of Dear Abby for mad scientists—I draw xkcd, a stick-figure webcomic.
I didn’t start out making comics. I went to school for physics, and after graduating, I worked on robotics at NASA. I eventually left NASA to draw comics full-time, but my interest in science and math didn’t fade. Eventually, it found a new outlet: answering the Internet’s weird—and sometimes worrying—questions. This book contains a selection of my favorite answers from my website, plus a bunch of new questions answered here for the first time.
I’ve been using math to try to answer weird questions for as long as I can remember. When I was five years old, my mother had a conversation with me that she wrote down and saved in a photo album. When she heard I was writing this book, she found the transcript and sent it to me. Here it is, reproduced verbatim from her 25-year-old sheet of paper:
Randall: Are there more soft things or hard things in our house?
Julie: I don’t know.
Randall: How about in the world?
Julie: I don’t know.
Randall: Well, each house has three or four pillows, right?
Randall: And each house has about 15 magnets, right?
Julie: I guess.
Randall: So 15 plus 3 or 4, let’s say 4, is 19, right?
Randall: So there are probably about 3 billion
soft things, and . . . 5 billion hard things. Well, which one wins?
Julie: I guess hard things.
To this day I have no idea where I got “3 billion” and “5 billion” from. Clearly, I didn’t really get how numbers worked.
My math has gotten a little better over the years, but my reason for doing math is the same as it was when I was five: I want to answer questions.
They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong; I think my question about hard and soft things, for example, is pretty stupid. But it turns out that trying to thoroughly answer a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places.
I still don’t know whether there are more hard or soft things in the world, but I’ve learned a lot of other stuff along the way. What follows are my favorite parts of that journey.
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