Randall Munroe Gets It Right On Asking Questions

Millions of people visit xkcd.com each week to read Randall Munroe’s iconic webcomic. His stick-figure drawings about science, technology, language, and love have a large and passionate following.

Fans of xkcd ask Munroe a lot of strange questions. What if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light? How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live? If there was a robot apocalypse, how long would humanity last?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, complemented by signature xkcd comics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion.

He wrote a great introduction in his What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions that left me reading the same page more than a few times at its brilliance:

I’ve been using math to try to answer weird questions for as long as I can remember. When I was five years old, my mother had a conversation with me that she wrote down and saved in a photo album. When she heard I was writing this book, she found the transcript and sent it to me. Here it is, reproduced verbatim from her 25-year-old sheet of paper:

Randall: Are there more soft things or hard things in our house?

Julie: I don’t know.

Randall: How about in the world?

Julie: I don’t know.

Randall: Well, each house has three or four pillows, right?

Julie: Right.

Randall: And each house has about 15 magnets, right?

Julie: I guess.

Randall: So 15 plus 3 or 4, let’s say 4, is 19, right?

Julie: Right.

Randall: So there are probably about 3 billion soft things, and . . . 5 billion hard things. Well, which one wins?

Julie: I guess hard things.

To this day I have no idea where I got “3 billion” and “5 billion” from. Clearly, I didn’t really get how numbers worked.

My math has gotten a little better over the years, but my reason for doing math is the same as it was when I was five: I want to answer questions.

They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong; I think my question about hard and soft things, for example, is pretty stupid. But it turns out that trying to thoroughly answer a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places.

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