How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems by Randall Munroe, 5/5
This book does not disappoint! It is filled with hilarious, ridiculous, scientifically strenuous “solutions” to problems ranging from “how to jump really high” to “how to change a light bulb.” As a piano teacher, I found the chapter on how to play the piano particularly hilarious and thought-provoking. I’ve never thought to ask questions like “how many keys would need to be added to the piano keyboard to make music for whales?” (spoiler: it’s not as many as you’d think!).
What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant? Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns? From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?
With his trademark wit, scientific know-how, and ability to draw strangely hilarious stick figures, Randall Munroe answers some of the vital questions that have been asked by readers of his webcomic, xkcd. I expected this book to be underwhelming and a bit of a chore to read (à la almost all the other books based on webcomics I’ve encountered), but it was hilarious and accessible–my teenaged brother got his hands on it before me and read the whole thing in short order. The content seems well-suited to book format and, surprisingly, I found it to be even funnier and more readable than the What If? blog that inspired its creation.
[Why I read it: I’ve been a fan of xkcd for several years now.]
Rand’s writing is skilled, insightful, and compelling, but the argument for her personal philosophy of objectivism is not convincing. The fact that objectivism works for the heroes in the world she creates is more a tribute to her skill as a novelist than her prowess as a philosopher. One scene in particular drives home the unreality of the reality she creates: the heroine, Dagny, in an airplane with four gorgeous, intelligent, dominant men, with three of whom she has had incredibly serious, ostensibly meaningful, emotional and sexual relationships, who all still love her, respect each other and get along in brotherly harmony. Nothing in my experience and observation of humanity makes me consider this a remotely possible or even desirable scenario. The intellectual unsoundness of Rand’s philosophy becomes obvious in the 55-page monologue near the end of the book. Her persistent use of straw man fallacies reveals that she lacks a basic understanding of the psychology of religion and of philosophies other than her own. However, her cold artistry, perception of raw human psychology, and the epic characters that populate a dystopian future, result in a massive novel that is both a pleasure and a challenge to read.
P.S. XKCD just did an excellent comic about Rand. The mouseover is the best part.