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‘How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Real-World Problems’

September 4, 2019
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There are plenty of books out there that aim to tell you how to do something. Whether its DIY home repair or computer programming or self-help or what have you, there’s probably a book that purports to tell you how to do it. These books bill themselves as offering straightforward instructions on doing whatever it is you seek to do.

But maybe you’re not looking for straightforward. Maybe the how-tos (hows-to?) you’re looking for are needlessly complicated, convoluted and/or flat-out absurd. And if they’re illustrated with goofy graphs and jokey stick-figure comic strips, so much the better.

If you fall into the latter category, then Randall Munroe’s “How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Real-World Problems” (Riverhead, $28) is the book you’ve been waiting for. The NASA-roboticist-turned-beloved-webcomic-artist aims his unique perspective and skill set at coming up with ridiculous and technically correct (the best kind of correct) advice for dealing with an assortment of everyday – and occasionally not-so-everyday – issues.

The blend of smart and simple that has marked Munroe’s work since the earliest days of online comic sensation xkcd is in full effect in this new book; he takes real joy in finding that weird intersection of scientific thought and anarchic absurdity … and that joy is evident on every page of this book. He wants you to laugh and to learn as you look at the workings of the world through his own peculiarly and particularly cracked lens.

Even if you didn’t know what you were getting into, it becomes very clear very quickly. The first chapter is titled “How to Throw a Pool Party.” Seems innocuous enough, right? But Munroe digs in, offering up the mathematical basis of how materials deal with the tension of water. It’s called hoop stress and the book spells it out. From there, we get to explore different water sources – including making it through chemical reactions, stealing it from distant sources or even buying it in bottles from the internet.

And it just gets stranger. And funnier.

From there, we get chapters exploring delightfully convoluted answers to a wide assortment of how-to questions. Some of them are simple – “How to Dig a Hole” or “How to Mail a Package” or “How to Move.” Some are athletically-oriented – “How to Jump Really High” and “How to Throw Things,” “How to Play Football” and “How to Ski.” And some are just outright weird – “How to Build a Lava Moat” or “How to Keep Your House from Moving” or “How to Make an Emergency Landing.”

Every one of these chapters is built around Munroe’s classic stick-figure cartoons and real math directed at ridiculous targets. Even the mundane topics are explored in a steadily escalating manner – you’d think that using vacuum decay to rend space-time in order to power your house would be as crazy as it gets, for instance, but then Munroe takes us to Mars and proposes the use of a tether to the moon Phobos to power the house there.

(That’s right – there’s a chapter titled “How to Power Your House” followed immediately by a chapter titled “How to Power Your House (on Mars),” just so you know what we’re dealing with.)

This is a book whose chapter “How to Catch a Drone” enlists the assistance of tennis superstar Serena Williams to see if a served tennis ball could effectively target an airborne drone. We get suggestions of using butterflies to send files and measuring tooth radioactivity to determine when you were born. Oh, and the chapter on “How to Decorate a Tree” quickly spirals into a digression regarding the world’s oldest and tallest trees.

There’s a wonderful intellectual generosity inherent to “How To” – Munroe’s love of knowledge is evident on every page. And through his willingness to push beyond the rational into the realm of the absurd-but-still-kind-of-maybe-possible (or at least calculable), he invites the reader to embrace the joys of the world around us. He pushes the envelope to a ludicrous degree and has a great time doing it … and hence, so do we.

It’s a fast read, but one that invites further exploration. “How To” is a delight the first time through, but subsequent looks reveal even more, encouraging the reader to dig deeper into the bizarre questions being asked. Yes, it’s all very silly. But that’s what makes it fun. Munroe’s ability to take complex ideas and render them both easily digestible and wildly entertaining is unparalleled; it’s the foundation of his success with xkcd and it only shines brighter with more room to run.

“How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Real-World Problems” delivers on the promises made by its subtitle. It is smart and sly and weird as heck in all the best ways. Anyone with the slightest interest in the way the world works will derive great pleasure from Randall Munroe’s convoluted journey to solve simple (and a few not-so-simple) problems.

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 September 2019 11:48

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