If you read the column, you know the drill: strangers on the Internet ask Munroe weird, extreme hypothetical questions, like what would happen if you could throw a baseball at the speed of light, or what it would take to make an astronomically plausible asteroid of the size and density of the one that The Little Prince lives on. Then Munroe — a former NASA roboticist who trained as a physicist — answers these questions with a kind of fiendish comprehensiveness, describing the bizarre physics of very small, very large, very fast, very slow, very empty and very dense things in meticulous detail that does nothing to mask his near-satanic glee in the perversity of the universe at its extremes.
There's no learning like the learning you do when you're laughing. And if the laughter is inspired laughter, laughter at the vastness and strangeness and sheer delight of the universe, then the learning sticks, because it is bonded to an intense emotion. Reading Munroe doing science is that kind of intense experience, that kind of learning. Every one of these short, lucid, illustrated science articles is a lesson about physics that's not only memorable, it's a pleasurable memory, tinged with tingly, delicious terror-at-a-distance for the howling, eschatological dementedness of physics.
The book gathers together dozens of the best articles from the site, and adds in several more that are new to the collection, as well as a series of highly amusing interludes that present the weirdest questions Munroe has received:
Converting a webcomic — especially one that is as radical in format as XKCD, which won a Hugo award this year for an animated science fiction story that loaded about one frame per hour for 123 days — to print format is a tricky business. XKCD Volume 0, Munroe's first print collection, did a lot of clever tricks to ease the transition. In What If, there are fewer puzzles (that I noticed), but the production values of the book are fabulous.
What If features a wraparound, double-sided jacket (the inside of it is a map of the Earth's surface as it would appear if all the oceans were drained through a transdimensional portal and poured onto the surface of Mars); printed boards, and endpapers that are a mosaic of funny, twisted doodles in Munroe's familiar scrawl. This is a book intended to be treasured and to be given as a gift, perhaps one that kicks off a journey into the weirdest, best places in science. There is enough material here for a hundred classroom workshops and a thousand cubicle doors (I have seen Munroe's cartoons on the doors of every scientific institution I've visited, from CERN to the Human Genome Project).
There is, incredibly enough, an audiobook of What If?, which is a weird idea, given how much the explanations rely on Munroe's charming diagrams. But the book is read by Wil Wheaton, who is, for my money, the best audiobook narrator working today, and it was produced by Blackstone audio and recorded at Skyboat in Los Angeles, who do outstanding work, and they all labored mightily with Munroe to turn the diagrams into spoken word (and there's an accompanying PDF, which also helps).
It's easy to inspire a sense of wonder about the universe, but Munroe's gift for inspiring a sense of delight is a rare treasure indeed.
DRM-free audiobook [Read by Wil Wheaton]
Excerpt from WHAT IF? by Randall Munroe, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. © 2014 by xkcd Inc. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.