Book Review: What If? 2 by Randall Munroe

Katie Hopkins
September 21, 2022

Genre: Non-Fiction

Content warnings: death, injury

Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: learning something you never thought you would need to know and a good laugh (but in a way that makes you feel smart without really having to think)

It doesn’t matter what ingredients you put into a black hole soup. The recipe always turns out the same in the end.

As I was already a fan of Randall Munroe’s internet comic, xkcd, and his previous books, I was incredibly excited going into What If? 2, and I must say, I was not disappointed. The premise of answering absurd questions using science, logic and reasoning is not particularly unique in itself, but it was pulled off flawlessly. The combination of witty answers, strange questions and stranger solutions was immaculate.

Some of these questions included:

  • Can all the world’s bananas fit inside all the world’s churches? (Probably.)
  • What SPF would you need for a 1-hour trip to the surface of the sun? (It doesn’t matter because the sunscreen layer would need to be over 10 metres thick.)
  • What would happen if the solar system was filled with soup out to jupiter? (Black hole!)
  • Could you make a billion story building? (The answer is no, but it provided me and my friends with over three hours of fun debates).

I should note that I am not a scientist and try to avoid maths entirely whenever possible, so it seems unlikely that I would enjoy a book so fundamentally based around science. The premise of What If? 2 could easily lead to headache-inducing maths, formulas and long-winded explanations that take readers back to their high-school science classrooms, but Munroe avoids this entirely. The scientific explanations are so accessible and easily understandable that I found I didn’t have any problems understanding them at all, even when they were taking on complex concepts. The witty cartoons dotted throughout the pages added humour and also worked as diagrams to help explain concepts.

The book is incredibly well researched. Aside from his own degree in physics and experience as a NASA roboticist, Munroe makes reference to recent academia and articles in many of his answers, even interviewing other specialists where his own knowledge falls short. This adds credibility to his arguments, and it’s nice to know that, as entertaining as his answers are, they come from a place of knowledge and fact.

Most importantly though, in my opinion, this is a book clearly written by someone who is having a great time and genuinely enjoying his work. Every answer is written as if Munroe has just found himself going down a weird and wacky rabbit-hole and can’t wait to share what he found with the world. I think this is why this book is so fun to read and easy to understand despite its complex subject matter.

Overall, this is one of the few books I’ve read where my expectations were perfectly met, and I couldn’t give this book any less than 5 stars.

Illustration of five stars drawn onto a torn slip of paper.

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