How To, the third book from XKCD comic creator Randall Munroe, is sublimely ridiculous. It’s a collection of absurd but enlightening answers to some everyday questions (how to play tag) and some improbable ones (how to protect your house with a lava moat).
If you like the XKCD webcomic (I do) and Munroe’s earlier books What If? and Thing Explainer (I do), you’ll like How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems. Some of my favorite chapters: how to take a selfie, how to tell if you’re a ’90s kid, how to play the piano, how to be on time, how to power your house and how to dispose of this book.
Authors are discovering that a spoonful of sugary humor makes the education medicine go down. I also recommend Soonish from Kelly and Zack WeinerSmith, another hilarious, provocative, cartoon-infused look at questions you might not have realized you wanted somebody to answer. With Munroe’s How To, though, it’s easy to flip to a random page and indulge your curiosity. It even passed one of my unofficial tests: My 14-year-old child, unprompted, picked it up and started reading my copy over the weekend.
Munroe’s trademark stick-figure illustrations and nerd humor will make you chortle, but the pleasantly subversive part of the book is that you’ll also end up learning things.
Among the tidbits now lodged in my brain:
- The plutonium power module on Apollo 13 that was supposed to stay on the moon ended up in the Earth’s ocean. (Thank you, cautious NASA engineers.)
- For the sitcom Friends, the actors’ names peaked in collective popularity in about 1982 but the popularity of their characters’ names peaked about 1997.
- “The Earth’s atmosphere weighs as much as a layer of water 10 meters thick.”
- Mars’ moon Phobos is nearly three times as wide as Mount Everest is tall (and Phobos’ ever-tightening orbit will eventually cause it to collide with Mars).
- Snow machines make artificial snow not just by blowing tiny droplets of water into freezing air, as I thought, but by bonding them to tiny ice crystals generated at the same time for a somewhat fluffier result.
- Some aircraft have spinning turbines that can generate emergency power even during supersonic flight.
- Impact craters on our planet are either a few feet across or a few thousand feet across.
Munroe spices things up by drawing on the knowledge of various experts: tennis pro Serena Williams on blasting a drone out of the sky with a tennis ball; MIT robot ethicist Kate Darling on whether it’s wrong to blast drones with tennis balls for fun; astronaut Chris Hadfield on difficult emergency landing sites like a submarine; astrophysicist Katie Mack on the inadvisability of powering your house by triggering the decay of the vacuum between atoms. “You’d get a bubble of true vacuum expanding at the speed of light [that would] incinerate you, then destroy all your particles, and then devour the entire universe,” she says.
Munroe left his job as a NASA roboticist to draw cartoons in 2006. I don’t know if NASA is happy about that, but I am. Countless other techie types are as well, judging by the frequent citations you can find online to XKCD comics. You can even create XKCD-style charts with a pseudo-hand-drawn look. Cartoons I see cited often these days include Munroe’s take on actual computer security risks, picking a strong password, and technology standards.
Some How To’s explanations evidently got Munroe thinking hard, prompting long — perhaps too long — and indulgent answers. By the 23rd page of discussions about throwing a pool party, some of the humor can wear thin. And some other answers are given comparatively short shrift. Why do we only get one tantalizing mention of the diverging diamond intersection on just a single-page cartoon about how to build a highway?
But those are nitpicks. The book is a fine way to learn about the world and appreciate how science and math are woven into our lives. You can skip over Munroe’s back-of-the-envelope calculations that ground the book in real physics. But with How To, you can’t help but appreciate the glorious complexity of our universe and the amazing breadth of humanity’s effort to comprehend it.
If you want some lightweight edification, you won’t go wrong with How To.