Rossdavidh's Reviews > How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems

How To by Randall Munroe
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it was amazing
bookshelves: blue

The principal problem with Randall Munroe books, is that they go by way too fast. I like to savor a good book, reading a little bit at a time, then thinking that part over for a day before going on to the next. With "how to", like its predecessor "what if", I gobbled it up in a day or two. Someone with money please fund a grant to get Mary Roach and Randall Munroe to write a series of science textbooks for junior high and high schoolers.

There are chapters on how to take out a drone with a tennis ball, if you happen to be Serena Williams. A pilot who has flown on both Space Shuttle and Soyuz missions gives us his estimate of Dorothy's options for flying her house so as to miss the witch. We see some ideas about how to build a real lava moat around your house (and also some of the downsides). There is a discussion of how long people can throw things, which led apparently to the web comic at xkcd.com/throw, where you can find out that Carly Rae Jepsen can throw a squirrel a distance of 15 smoots.

There is a chapter on "How To Play Football", wherein the first few pages are devoted to figuring out, without actually asking anybody or knowing beforehand or otherwise cheating like that, which kind of football you are playing, whether it is soccer or rugby or Canadian football or what. From there, we have a discussion of how to take the ball to the goal, including whether or not you should use a horse. This takes us to an analysis of how many orcs a good sized galloping horse could actually knock out of the way, wherein the physics analysis of air resistance is used with the air molecules replaced by orcs.

The basic point of the book (yes, there is one) is expressed in the following quote:

"I really love that we can ask physics ridiculous questions like, 'What kind of gas mileage would my house get on the highway?', and physics has to answer us."

This, is missing from most science education. Once you have learned how to do the math to find the answers to questions that somebody else already knows the answer to, you can then use the same skills to ask (and answer) questions that no one knows the answer to. This, is one of the great things about science, and it was found almost nowhere in my education. The reason being, of course, that science is extraordinarily useful, and anything which is useful, can also be dangerous.

In other words, our education (science and otherwise) wasn't boring by accident, it was boring on purpose. They don't teach you enough chemistry to make explosives, or enough physics and engineering to make good trebuchets, or enough history to catch the flaws in your teachers' political beliefs, or enough of anything to get yourself into trouble, because...you would get yourself into trouble. Our education, is boring because it has had all the danger removed. In prehistoric times, you learned by doing alongside the adults in your tribe of hunter/gatherers on the African savannah. Everything you learned, had a purpose and a use, otherwise why would you learn it? But, nowadays, our education is all the trappings of learning without anything learned that can result in a child hurting themselves or misbehaving, which is more or less all the interesting bits.

What Randall Munroe has done with this book, consciously or not, is imagine what physics education could be like, if we weren't worried about giving the students crazy dangerous ideas, like how to make a wheel that rolls smoothly on an escalator, so that you can use the energy provided by the escalator to charge your phone when there are no available outlets.

"Pro tip: You should probably make the wheel narrow, rather than having it take up the whole width of the escalator. It's going to be unsafe either way, but if it takes up the whole escalator, and someone gets on without noticing, it will inadvertedly turn your contraption into a nightmarish human grinder, which will likely harm its efficiency."

The book has Munroe's generic-yet-somehow-distinctive style of illustration throughout, as for example the diagram on p.71 of how one could use a giant field of kettles to boil a river, so that you can cross it without having to touch the water. It has humor, science, and occasional offbeat historical details like the near-nonexistence of buried pirate treasure and George Washington's ability to throw things. It was great. I want another.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
September 20, 2019 – Shelved (Paperback Edition)
September 20, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read (Paperback Edition)
November 3, 2019 – Shelved
November 3, 2019 – Shelved as: blue

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