How To

Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems

[Amazon Link]

I'm a big fan of Randal Munroe's xkcd web comic, so this book was a natural thing to put on my Christmas list. And I finally got around to reading it. (One chapter per day; don't want to overdose.)

The theme is: take a "normal" question, and (as the subtitle suggests) take the answer to absurd lengths using scientific insight and very dry humor.

Example: Chapter 13, "How to Play Tag". Pretty simple, but what's your strategy if you're the slowest runner in the game? (If you're not the slowest, you just run after and tag someone slower.)

Well, you wait until they slow down or stop. They have to eventually, right?

Then, what's their strategy? Run long enough to open up enough of a lead so they won't be tagged while stopped.

Which immediately suggests (to Munroe): what if there's a two-person tag game between a world-class sprinter (like Usain Bolt) and a world-class miler (like Hicham El Guerrouj)? What about a game between you and Yiannis Kourous, who once ran 180 miles in a 24-hour period? What if…

It's all illustrated with Munroe's cartoons, with his stick figure people. And there are guest stars: in Chapter 22, "How to Catch a Drone", he wonders how (say) athletes might be able to use their equipment to knock one down. And he actually gets Serena Williams to see if she could whack an actual drone out of the sky with a well-aimed tennis ball shot. (Spoiler: heck yes, she could.)

In another bit of wonderfulness, in Chapter 5, "How to Make an Emergency Landing", Munroe turns to astronaut Chris Hadfield. Who turns out to have the same demented whimsical take on such questions as Munroe. Could you land a small plane on a ski jump? Maybe, replies Hadfield, if you managed to come in just right and stalled the plane just at the little flat part on the bottom of the jump…

I enjoyed the book a lot. I would especially recommend it as a gift to some curious/geeky teenager, if you know any.