Book Review: Roboticist ponders the hypothetical

Michael Saakyan
Book Editor

During October 2006, roboticist Randall Munroe found out NASA would not be renewing his contract with the Langley Research Center.

With new free time on his hands, Munroe began to work on his webcomic series, “xkcd.” Munroe uses stick figures in “xkcd” to bring humor to technology, science, mathematics and pop culture.

The webcomic quickly became a fan favorite to geeks and nerds who love having a sense of science mixed in to their humor.

Layout 1By October 2007, the website received at least 70 million hits a month. With newfound popularity, Munroe created a new blog called “What If,” where he would answer hypothetical scientific questions submitted by fans.

The “What If” series inspired Munroe to create a book where the best questions were answered as well as the “weird and worrying” ones.

The book is called “What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.”

Hockey Puck

How hard would a puck have to be shot to be able to knock the goalie himself backward into the net? –Tom

From watching comedic hockey movies, we always see the goalie blocking or being hit by a puck and falling back due to the power behind the player delivering the puck.

Unfortunate to real life, the movies are where the powerful puck remains.

Munroe explains that a hockey puck is 600 times too light compared to a goalie in full hockey gear. Also there can never be a player strong enough to deliver such a fast traveling puck. But fortunate for readers, Munroe refuses to let the word “can’t” get in the way of testing a theory.

Munroe assumes that instead of a player sending the puck rocketing toward the goalie that it is a machine shooting hockey pucks.

From there, he can test the theory. An average 165 gram hockey puck must travel somewhere between Mach 2 and Mach 8 to knock the goalie backward.

Mach is a dimensionless quantity representing the ratio of speed of an object moving through a fluid and local speed of sound. Mach is usually used to calculate the speed of aircrafts.

In other words the hockey puck has to be traveling incredibly fast to try to make all 165 grams of itself move a fully equipped hockey player. However, it is not as simple as it sounds.

Munroe says that Mach 8 is not difficult to achieve because BB guns fire at the rate of Mach 8 but a BB gun pallet is different than a hockey puck.

The air resistance would slow down the puck and most likely by the time it reaches the goalie it would burst on impact like a firecracker.

Munroe says that when he first saw the question he assumed it would be like how it most Bugs Bunny cartoons when an object or character would go through a wall leaving the outline behind. But that’s not how high speeds react to materials.

Munroe says to imagine what it would look like to throw a tomato at a birthday cake.

Global Windstom

What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity? –Andrew Brown

We have all wondered this question of what would happen if the Earth stopped. Munroe, by using cleaver and funny illustrations shows the exact dangers that would come.

Hypothetically the earth stopped spinning but the winds kept moving. This would affect 85 percent of Earth, 42 degrees north and 42 degrees south of the equator.

The winds would be turn supersonic with the highest being at the equator.

The supersonic winds would not last very long, a few minutes according to Munroe, but even those few minutes would be dangerous enough to do a lot of damage.

It would be long enough to make all human structures into ruins.

All buildings would be destroyed by heavy gusts of winds unless it was created using depleted uranium. Then you are safe, unless if your neighbor has a similar house but are not as home improvement savvy as you are.

Then when their house pulls out you have to worry about a house made out of depleted uranium hitting your well developed home by your neighbor’s poor craftsman ship.

Most survivors of the thousand mile per hour winds would be those who are underground like basements and subway tunnels.

According to Munroe, they would have the best chance of surviving the Earth stopping.

The normal cycle of day and night would end. The sun would be rising and setting once a year causing day and night to be six months long, even at the equator.

Due to six months of sunlight hitting one area, the surface would start to bake while the other side of the world’s temperature would plummet due to its lack of sunlight.

Munroe uses illustrations of a stick figure confused as to when the correct time would be to feed Gremlins with the earth standing still because even though it is after midnight there is still sunlight out.

But what about Earth’s greatest friend – the Moon. Without the Earth’s rotation feeding it tidal energy, the Moon would stop drifting away from us and would start to slowly drift back toward us.

“Our faithful companion,” the Moon would end up saving the Earth from the hellish six month day and night.

The Earth spins faster than the Moon, and the tides slow down the Earth’s rotation while pushing the Moon away.

Now that the Earth is not pushing the Moon away, its tides would accelerate our spin. The Moon’s gravity would end up tugging Earth back to spinning again.


Munroe has truly gone beyond to answer these hypothetical questions.

Being born in Texas, oddly enough Munroe knows nothing about rifles.

So when a question asking whether a machine gun can be turned into a jetpack, Munroe went off and began to do research about stuff he had no idea about.

He has texted his theories more than once and created a great book for anyone who knows nothing about science and for your average Sheldon Cooper who knows everything about science.

“What If?” receives four out of five stars because Munroe writes without a certain group of people involved.

He brings humor and science together in an easy to understand manner where anyone can read and be able to discuss the theories later.

With fun illustrations done by Munroe, science can finally be fun.

“What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypo­thetical Questions” is available now at major retail bookstores and on Amazon retailing at $24.

Michael Saakyan can be reached at

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