Tuesday, March 22, 2016

what if? by Randall Munroe

what if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe is the author of one of my favorite web comics, xkcd, and so I was excited when what if? was chosen for our book club. And for good reason: this is the funniest book I've read in ages. I read it while traveling recently and my wife kept looking at me oddly when I'd literally laugh out loud! The concept here is that Munroe gives "serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions," heavily laced with his trademark humor and cartoons. "Absurd" is certainly an appropriate word, with the book including questions such as "From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?" "How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?" and "What would happen if you were to gather a mole (unit of measurement) of moles (the small furry critter) in one place?" The author then examines the questions with a scientific bent, albeit often ridiculous as immortal people and bullets with the density of a neutron star are theoretical at best.

It is hard to pick my favorite vignette; they were all fantastic. "Periodic Wall of the Elements" discusses the possibility of building a periodic table where each block is actually made of the respective element. "The sixth row would explode violently, destroying the building in a cloud of radioactive, poisonous fire and dust. Do not build the seventh row." Actually, what I'm confused about is how. "Relativistic Baseball" examines a baseball being pitched at 90% of the speed of light, ending with "everything within roughly a mile of the park would be leveled, and a firestorm would engulf the surrounding city. Major League Baseball Rule 6.08(b) suggests that in this situation, the batter would be considered “hit by pitch” and would be eligible to advance to first base." And "Machine-Gun Jetpack" has possibly my favorite cartoon (included here) with the caption "Actually, what I'm confused about is how."

On top of the humor inherent in the questions and answer themselves, there is a constant stream of comedy throughout the narrative as well. Pop-culture references abound, with Gremlins, Furbies, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Dragon Ball Z, and Firefly making common appearances. At one point Munroe gets int an argument with himself in the footnotes about the proper capitalization and attribution of "Lego." And one of my favorite running gags was the use of [citation needed] for patently obvious items: "After all, the Empire State Building sits on a base like that, and it's more than a few days old[citation needed] and hasn't disappeared into the ground.[citation needed]" Even the book jacket was funny, with the flip-side showing a map of "the world after a portal to Mars opened at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, draining most of the oceans."

I can't say enough good things about this book. Funny and educational; everyone in my book club liked it, as did both of my sons. Munroe gathers these questions from his website, so hopefully a sequel is in the cards!

First Sentence:
Q. What would happen if the Earth ad all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Hell and Good Company, by Richard Rhodes

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, by Richard Rhodes

Before reading Hell and Good Company pretty much all I could have told you about the Spanish Civil War was that it occurred between World Wars I and II and Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls based on his experiences there. Rhodes only lightly touches the military and political aspects of the war, instead concentrating on the innovations that were made real during this time. I was shocked to discover that frontline blood donations weren't commonplace before Spain, and the practice of sealing open wounds and compound fractures with plaster to keep them clean and immobile finally gained medical acceptance at this time, too. Hard to believe that before the late 1930's a broken leg was usually amputated on the battlefield in order to save the soldier. Military tactics also saw a lot of advancement during this time; air power truly came into its own, resulting sadly in prominent, purposeful civilian targets and the first war with a city bombed into literal rubble.

Rhodes has a sophisticated writing style; readable, but with an impressive (and occasionally off-putting) vocabulary: "In pursuing a latter-day, reverse reconquista he was less a fascist than an aggrandized martinet." One chapter in particular I found difficult to finish; the author discusses the creation of Picasso's Guernica, explaining in excruciating detail how the painting changed with each small step in the artistic process. Oddly, there isn't a rendering of the entire finished work included, so much of the included minutia was severely lacking in context. This literary wandering was an anomaly, though, and the book itself was both engrossing and appealing, and I recommend it to anyone interested in this time in history.

First Sentence:
Barcelona, 25 July 1936: In the glare of Spanish summer, the first witnesses to the igniting civil war are leaving to tell the world.

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