Categories
Review

“What If? 2”

Randall Munroe

One of the tropes of the internet that I really enjoy is the concept of “relevant xkcd”. As it turns out, when you spend nearly two decades publishing three comics a week, you wind up covering a staggering variety of topics, to the point that pretty much any topic will have a relevant xkcd to link to. And, in thinking about that, I’m amazed all over again at Randall Munroe’s work; there is so much xkcd. Thousands of comics… and they aren’t always stick figure things, a few times a year it’ll some sort of complex piece of software, or a gigantic world to explore, or some other exploration of what a “webcomic” really is in light of the technology of the web.

Anyhow, that’s all a digression, because in the spare time he’s apparently got from all of the above, he’s also had time to write a couple books, and all the ones I’ve read are delightful. A couple years later, I’m back to report on the sequel of the last one I reviewed, and it’s… exactly what the title implies. More “absurd hypothetical questions,” answered with a great deal of research. “Can a person eat a whole cloud?” Well, that depends — are you squeezing the air out first? If so, you can! If not, definitely no, and you may actually wind up dehydrated amidst a larger cloud than you started with.

It’s all things like that, and it really shows that Munroe is, in his way, a very effective science communicator. This feels like a great book to give to a curious kid to encourage that curiosity, and get them to ask some really interesting questions in class.1 It’s a delight, and, in the truest sense, fun for all ages. I absolutely loved this book; give it a read.2

  1. And, based on the notes in some of the questions submitted, a great many of those will quickly be directed back to Munroe, for a continuation of the series.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“Physics of the Impossible”

Michio Kaku

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of these “explain the whole field in broad strokes” books lately. I do enjoy the twist in this of focusing specifically on impossible things, particularly science fiction tropes; it provides a bit more of a narrative through line, a nice organizational structure to hang the various facts on.

Two caveats to this book:

Firstly, it’s somewhat dated; just from reading, you can narrow down the publishing date to sometime in the mid-aughts. The downside to writing about something as inherently contemporary as “the latest scientific discoveries.”

Secondly, the use of the definite article when referring to theories. It’s never “quantum theory”, always “the quantum theory.” Which I’ve listed as a caveat, but really it falls somewhere between being overly tied to semantics and doing a good job of reminding us that all theories are theories—sure, the theory of gravity is pretty well understood, but it remains a part of the scientific process; it remains a theory.

All told, I found this a pretty good read. The chapters are about the right size for chunks of reading time, and it’s a nice overview of the various impossibilities. (It also feels like it’d be a great reference book for a science fiction writer—it provides enough terminology and understanding to get the realistically-wrong physics you want for good sci-fi.) Give it a go.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
Categories
Review

“Grunt”

Mary Roach
I spent the entire time reading this book thinking that it was by the same person who wrote Combat-Ready Kitchen. Which was an interesting comparison to have in mind, as I quite liked that one, but “Grunt” was much more fun. While “Combat-Ready Kitchen” felt like it was trying to be ready for use as a textbook in a history class, “Grunt” was unabashedly written by a human being who likes to mention their human responses. I’ve got a great deal of highlights of comedic moments that Roach captured very well.1
As someone with precisely zero interest in joining the military, I think Roach is an excellent writer for this topic. Clearly she’s got a bit more experience in this area than I do — nobody who’s spent a week on a nuclear submarine doing research for a book can really be as clueless as she tries to convey — but she’s removed enough from it that she can be an excellent go-between. The feigned cluelessness doesn’t read as an affectation, it reads as making sure the genuinely clueless folks like me can follow along.
And it’s just an interesting subject matter. The Department of Defense has a spectacular research budget, which they put into doing all sorts of neat things. Nothing in the book focuses on the science of Exciting New Ways To Make People Dead; in fact, it’s almost universally focused on the opposite. I’m okay with my tax dollars going to research on reconstructive surgery and heat-stroke prevention.
I can definitely recommend “Grunt”. It’s a fun read, and the science is neat. Check it out.


  1. And a pent-up rant about just how bad the experience of trying to highlight stuff is in Apple Books. While the location of the highlight has a clear correlation to where your finger is on-screen, they’re not directly related in the way that we’re trained to expect from iOS. And god forbid you want to highlight something that spans across a page break – to date, the only way I’ve found to do this is to change the text size until they’re on the same page. Even Amazon does better than that, and their Kindle app has never not felt like an abandoned project.