What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
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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.
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A hundred billion or so humans have ever lived, but only seven billion are alive now (which gives the human condition a 93 percent mortality rate).
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In the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University sits a battery-powered bell that has been ringing since the year 1840. The bell “rings” so quietly it’s almost inaudible, using only a tiny amount of charge with every motion of the clapper. Nobody knows exactly what kind of batteries it uses because nobody wants to take it apart to figure it out.
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Nuclear submarines use electricity to extract oxygen from water.
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This tells us that a typical modern laptop, which has a benchmark score in the tens of thousands of MIPS, has more computing power than existed in the entire world in 1965.
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Even in our best telescopes, the largest asteroids were visible only as points of light. In fact, that’s where their name comes from—the word asteroid means “starlike.”
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If you stand on the North Pole, you’re 20 kilometers closer to the center of the Earth than if you stand on the equator, and you feel a stronger pull from gravity.
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Immune boosters like pegfilgrastim (Neulasta) make frequent doses of chemotherapy safer. They stimulate white blood cell production by, in effect, tricking the body into thinking that it has a massive E. coli infection that it needs to fight off.
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In general, if you have a child with yourself, 50 percent of your chromosomes will have the same stat on both sides. If that stat is a 1—or if it’s a multiplier—the child will be in trouble, even though you might not have been. This condition, having the same genetic code on both copies of a chromosome, is called homozygosity.
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Gravity in low Earth orbit is almost as strong as gravity on the surface. The Space Station hasn’t escaped Earth’s gravity at all; it’s experiencing about 90 percent the pull that we feel on the surface. To avoid falling back into the atmosphere, you have to go sideways really, really fast. The speed you need to stay in orbit is about 8 kilometers per second.
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Cisco estimates that total Internet traffic currently averages 167 terabits per second. FedEx has a fleet of 654 aircraft with a lift capacity of 26.5 million pounds daily. A solid-state laptop drive weighs about 78 grams and can hold up to a terabyte. That means FedEx is capable of transferring 150 exabytes of data per day, or 14 petabits per second—almost a hundred times the current throughput of the Internet.
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At the equator in March and September, sunset is a hair over two minutes long. Closer to the poles, in places like London, it can take between 200 and 300 seconds. It’s shortest in spring and fall (when the Sun is over the equator) and longest in the summer and winter.
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A larger planet would allow for more geologic activity, which is why some scientists think that exoplanets slightly larger than Earth (“super-Earths”) could be more friendly to life than Earth-sized ones.
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Say you fire the arrow at 85 meters per second. That’s about twice the speed of a major-league fastball, and a little below the 100 m/s speed of arrows from high-end compound bows.
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Many people sneeze when exposed to bright sunlight. The reasons for this reflex are unknown, and it may pose a danger to fighter pilots during flight.
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Microwaving a cup of water for two minutes at 700 watts delivers an awful lot of energy to the water. When water falls from the top of Niagara Falls, it gains kinetic energy, which is converted to heat at the bottom. But even after falling that great distance, the water heats up by only a fraction of a degree.4 To boil a cup of water, you’d have to drop it from higher than the top of the atmosphere.
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No place on Earth has constant lightning, but there’s an area in Venezuela that comes close. Near the southwestern edge of Lake Maracaibo, there’s a strange phenomenon: perpetual nighttime thunderstorms. There are two spots, one over the lake and one over land to the west, where thunderstorms form almost every night. These storms can generate a flash of lightning every two seconds, making Lake Maracaibo the lightning capital of the world.