Book Club

Skepchick Book Club: What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Note: Information about next month’s book pick are at the bottom of this post.

Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month, we read What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe.

I’m, of course, a fan of xkcd, but I haven’t really kept up with Munroe’s “What If” blog, so all of the content of this book was new to me. From what I heard from others, the main difference between the book and the blog are the addition of the “weird and worrying questions from the What If inbox,” which I thought were the best part of the book. Most questions can be answered with some form of “everything explodes” or “the end of humanity as we know it.” To be honest, this book reminded me a lot of Phil Plait’s Death from the Skies, except that the scenarios in this book are absurd and Plait’s book covers situations that are theoretically possible. (Also, Phil Plait loves this book, but I’m sure you already knew that.)

Some of my favorite questions were:

1. What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube-shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?

If you were to actually construct this table, as you went further down, bad things would happen. Eventually, everything would be engulfed in flames, toxic gas, and radiation. My favorite line from this question was about the element astatine, which is highly radioactive and has a half-life of hours. According to Munroe, “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.”

(And while you’re still pondering this question, go check out the Periodic Table Table–an actual wooden table infused with the elements from the periodic table.)

2. What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?

The answer to this question is really: “nothing.” But the real answer is: “life as we know would end.” And that is because if everyone in the world stopped what they were doing to travel to one spot to conduct this experiment, the global economy would collapse. Also, the surrounding infrastructure of the location where everyone went (in this example it was Rhode Island) would collapse. The cell networks would be overloaded, the traffic jams would be massive, and the airports would be overworked just to get everyone home.

3. What would happen if you were able to gather a mole (unit of measurement) of moles (the small furry critter) in one place?

If this mole of moles were on earth, it would cover the crust many times over. If it were in space, it would form some sort of mole planet with an inner core of boiling meat and plumes of gas from the decomposition of the moles. (Just picturing this planet makes me laugh.)

4. If you call a random number and say “God bless you,” what are the chances that the person who answers just sneezed?

I like this answer because there is also the possibility that you would call up someone who committed murder, and that might give them the wrong idea. So maybe you should consider saying “I know what you did.” Although, there is a higher chance of talking to someone who just sneezed instead of a killer, so that might not be a great idea. (In fact, most answers in this book are bad ideas and Munroe admits that you probably shouldn’t take his suggestions and apply them to the real world.)

5. If a bullet with the density of a neutron star were fired from a handgun (ignoring the how) at the Earth’s surface, would the Earth be destroyed?

The best part about this answer is not what would happen to the Earth–but rather, what would happen to you, if you wanted to touch this bullet. The gravity field would be so strong, that if you reached the point where you were able to touch the bullet with your finger, all of the blood would be sucked out of your body, through your finger, and start rotating around the bullet. And in fact, because blood is denser than your hand, your hand would float on the bloody orb and propel you away from the bullet, to safety. (Neglecting the fact that you would lose all of your blood.)

Some of the weird and/or worrying questions:

  • Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself? (Answer: …is everything OK?)
  • If people had wheels and could fly, how would we differentiate them from airplanes? (No answer.)
  • How fast would a human have to run in order to be cut in half at the bellybutton by a cheese-cutting wire? (Answer: AAAAAAA!)
  • If you saved a whole life’s worth of kissing and used all that suction power on one single kiss, how much suction force would that single kiss have? (There is no answer to this in the book, but I want to add that I think this person may be kissing wrong.)
  • Can you survive a tidal wave by submerging yourself in an in-ground pool? (Answer: a graph indicating that this idea both sounds dumb and is actually dumb.)

I definitely recommend this book if you are a fan of end-of-Earth scenarios or just absurdly scientific answers. The chapters are short, of course, so it’s a good book for people who like to read in short bursts. Also, the cartoons are really funny (like you didn’t know that).

how we got to now book cover

Next Month’s Book: How We Got to Now

Pick up with us on December 7th as we go over How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson (the author of The Ghost Map, which I enjoyed very much). (If you’re in Boston on December 6th, you can join our book club with the Boston Skeptics! Just leave a comment and I’ll give the details.)


Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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