The world’s funniest former NASA roboticist will answer your questions

Decades ago, it took a stand-up comedian like Steven Wright to work in brilliantly surreal tones when he said, “It’s a small world. But I wouldn’t want to paint it.

Now it takes a humorous NASA roboticist turned popular cartoonist to finally answer the question: But what if you did do you want to paint it?

Dreaming up such a hypothesis awakens the ever-inquisitive mind of Randall Munroe, the mastermind behind the “xkcd” webcomic – adored by math and science geeks the world over – who also answers readers’ bizarre and quirky questions on his blog. . His answers resulted in the 2014 bestseller “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions”.

This week, the Massachusetts-based author follows up with the equally entertaining “What If?” 2: Additional Serious Science Answers to Nonsensical Hypothetical Questions,” which combines Munroe’s real research and genuinely fun prose with his iconic stick-figure illustrations.

In the new book, reader “Josh from Woonsocket, RI” poses the potential problem: “Has mankind produced enough paint to cover the entire land surface of the Earth?” Munroe answers the question with his characteristic wit, even turning to the art of “Fermi estimation” to arrive at ballpark numbers. Munroe’s guess: We wouldn’t have enough paint for such a global decorator’s project until the end of this century, at the earliest.

Other “What if? 2” Perilous Ring situations: What are your chances of death by geyser at Yellowstone Park? What would be the daily caloric human intake requirements of a modern T. rex gone rogue in New York City neighborhoods? And how catastrophic would it be if, as the children’s song goes, all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumballs?

Some concepts are less lethal, such as: What if we launched planes with a catapult to save fuel? Author’s response: Such takeoffs in the nation’s capital, for example, would require a nearly five-mile runway at Reagan National Airport that would “cross the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument…then continue through the city, terminating somewhere near Dupont Circle.”

It’s easy to see why Munroe’s fan base includes Neil Gaiman and Bill Gates – and why Serena Williams happily helped the author conduct an experiment to find out: how accurately could you take down an aerial drone with a tennis ball ? (The findings appeared in his 2019 book, “How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems.”)

“The reason Munroe’s approach is a great way to learn science,” Gates wrote in 2015, “is that he takes ideas everyone generally understands and then explores what happens when you push those ideas to their limits.”

Munroe sneakily engages in written requests while “doing the math” himself or contacting experts in the field.

“When I see a really interesting question, I get sucked into trying to answer it,” Munroe said last month via Zoom from his home near Boston, where he lives with his wife (whose cancer survivorship journey breast has been poignantly portrayed in “xkcd” tapes such as “Ten Years”).

“A lot of times what really drives me to choose a question is that when there’s one, I think I know the answer, but I don’t know if I’m right or not,” he adds. . “Because then I feel like going after him to find out if my instincts were right or not. Because either then I can validate myself – ha! I called him – or I learn something surprising and I then have to dig deeper to understand why I was wrong.

Books suitable for Munroe’s blog may have a distinct format of setup questions and generally extended answers. If worthy of this spirit, the Washington Post offers a similar article format to highlight what else you need to know about Randall Munroe.

Q. What is the impact on the direction of your life if a college counselor tells you, “You can’t have all the candy in the candy store.”

If the subject of the study is Munroe, then the impact is substantial.

He majored in physics and majored in math and computer science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. As Munroe considered furthering his education in 2006, an adviser told him that he would need to “narrow down” what he would pursue in graduate school. .

“You can’t keep working on these different things,” he recalls being told, despite his passion for a multivariate “all the sweets” approach — so he decided not to pursue studies. superior. In 2005, he landed an internship at NASA Langley Research Center. He ended up working there in 2006 as well, focusing on robotic navigation until the end of his contract.

Q. How does a scientist who draws stick figures suddenly become a viral cartoonist?

Munroe began publishing his comics online in the fall of 2005. He quickly had a burgeoning following. Fan letters said, “I’m so excited to know there’s someone else in this thing,” he recalled.

Munroe also names several other people who studied physics before turning to cartooning, including Bill Amend (“Foxtrot”) and Zach Weinersmith (“Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal”).

He laughs humbly. “In fact, of all the people who got degrees in physics but changed careers to comics and were born on October 17, I’m the second most successful.” Alright, who’s number 1? He smiles: “Mike Judge.

Q. If you ask scientists how old they are, will they tell you without checking the numbers first?

In Munroe’s case, at least: no. He takes a second to do a “slight subtraction,” he says sarcastically, to absolutely confirm his answer: he’s 37.

Q. A child was born into a Quaker family in Pennsylvania. He has an engineer and commercial father, as well as two siblings. Who will influence him the most?

“It was really my mom that I was very interested in maps and models,” Munroe says of the relative who excelled at plotting family driving routes during his childhood in Easton, Penn. (where he was born) and Massachusetts before he graduated high school in Midlothian, Virginia.

Munroe remembers being allowed a snack in bed once when he was 5 years old. He told Mom he was allowed to eat in bed once when he was 2 years old. It’s only when you’re one less than a multiple of 3.”

For young Randall, such mathematics was somehow right. Her mother also kept track of her childhood questions like, “Are there more hard or soft things in the world?” Munroe credits the PBS series “Square One Television” for helping to foster such thinking — and “Calvin and Hobbes” and Dave Barry for helping shape his appreciation of humor.

Q. Why do children seem to ask the best “What if?” questions?

In Munroe’s new book, kids under 6 want to know how to build a billion-story building, or wonder what if our solar system was filled with soup all the way to Jupiter? (In this “Soup” scenario, the author replies, this “soup black hole” would exert a gravitational pull.)

Elsewhere, a ninth-grader asks how long it would take a person to fill a swimming pool with their own saliva, and a 5-year-old wonders about the physics of a fireman’s pole reaching from Earth to the Moon .

When adults ask a “What if?” question, they “often define it in a way that they think is and sounds interesting and have an interesting answer,” Munroe says. An adult might write, “What if I took a nuke and put it on a train and the train was traveling at near-light speed…and the train was in a vacuum,” says the author. “They’re going to build this whole script where they try to make it cool.”

Children, on the other hand, “will just ask real questions that they want to know the answer to.” A billion-story building scenario is “a much better question than a train-empty-nuke question would be.”

Plus, children’s questions are “ultimately much more destructive,” he says, so their imaginative inquiries “win both ways.”

Q. A lot of “what if?” the scenarios end badly for those who happen to be human. Can Munroe’s research reassure?

“There are so many things that can go wrong in the world,” the author says. “It’s so hard to think about all of this in a psychologically healthy way.”

And the analysis does not necessarily anesthetize us. “I once heard a microbiologist online say something like: if you study the microbiome, you end up becoming either a total [germ-]obsessed person who doesn’t shake your hand, or you’ll eat food off the floor.

“For me, these ways of thinking about things and trying to quantify things and trying to figure out how they fit into the bigger picture, I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good or a bad mechanism. adaptation,” says Munroe. “That’s just how I do.”

Randall Munroe will appear in person and virtually on Wednesday, September 14 at 7 p.m. at Sixth & me in Washington.


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