Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions Randall Munroe

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I stumbled across xkcd more than once before I became a regular reader of it. The fist time was when looking for the comic on a T-shirt I saw in a SixtySymbols video
which became my computer desktop for almost a year]. My wife when discovered some of his posters and t-shirts and was shopping for me, when she shared it with me. I began to explore the comics they were based upon and then starting reading random comics. I enjoyed it enough that I started following it and then began working my way backwards.
I shared a few of the school appropriate ones with some students and many of them became followers of the comic as well. From there several of them beat me in going through all of the comics, and we ended up putting two on team T-shirts for Science Olympiad (The Difference & Collatz Conjecture). This all started back in the 2009-2010 school year. Since then I have read and enjoyed the comic religiously. In fact, for several years it used to a a regular occurrence for student(s) to pop in at the beginning of the school day to see the comic or to ask me if I had seen today's comic yet.
Two summers ago (2012) I was away for a week on a trip to take a class about AP Chemistry before I started teaching it. One afternoon while relaxing after class in my pool-less hotel I was playing around on the xkcd website and noticed the new "What If" link (probably on Monday, or Wednesday since that's when he updates the weekly comic). He had done three articles at that point and I devoured them, shared them with friends and former students online. Since then I have never missed an article, although his upload schedule became slightly irregular about the time this book came out.
I had no intent to get or read the book because at first I assumed it would be like his comics collection xkcd: volume 0 and not include anything that wasn't online for free already. When I read that 51% of the material in the book was new I was frustrated that I was going to have to pay for it and a little skeptical that this wasn't anything other than a sales ploy or an attempt to get fans to "ride the bandwagon". However, I ended up putting it on my Christmas list and then stumbled across a coy at the Troy Library one night when I had to take my daughter there for basketball practice. I started reading the book in the library during her hour-long practice and checked the book out before leaving. I was done with it about 24 hours after I checked it out. I had a normal night and day of teaching in-between other than I spent more time with a book than I did with a laptop or iPad. I devoured it.
Admittedly, I skipped most of the articles that I had read online before and there were several glaring typos or other errors, and I've read some critics who are even more negative than I was about the book just being a hastily thrown together hardback version of the online thing. I can see that, but I disagree because many editors wouldn't catch technical or scientific mistakes, a few selling errors seems to always happen, and I saw no lack of humor or quality in the book versus online essays (although I did miss the mouse-over text and I missed the reference notes being right there [the footnote text on the other hand was handled quite well]. Ironically, I especially liked the arts that were not essays, but instead was a recurring section in the book "Weird and Worrying Questions from the What If? inbox" and the recurring joke there "I need to know by Friday". In the end I did get the book for Christmas and it will be nice to have copies of the questions he answered there in my classroom and it will be a good book for some students to read. I'm not sure I'd spend my own money on it, but I do like most everything Randall Munroe has done and I'm glad to support him.

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