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BW Businessworld

The Weird Science

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Wwhat would happen if a glass was, all of a sudden, literally half empty? No, not half filled with air. Empty, as in a vacuum. Now that we have your attention (A: Boiling, to start of with. If the vacuum half was below the water, then you would have shards of glass flying at you, and levitation of the remains, which would eventually hit the ceiling, and again burst, all in the matter of about a second), let us now ask what would happen to the earth if the entire world population assembled on a small island and jumped at the exact same moment (A: Nothing, earth is way too heavy for that to make a dent). Or maybe, can you, as in the 2006 movie 300, shoot arrows into the sky to block out the sun? (A: Yes, at least partially, if you shoot 110 sq. metres worth of arrows, at 300 arrows a second).
In What If: Serious Scienific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, NASA scientist turned Internet cartoonist Randall Munroe tries to answer questions like these. Munroe is the creator of the webcomic  xkcd (not an acronym for anything), talking about science in a way that any person would cotton on. 
What Munroe manages to achieve through the book is exactly this. The answers are often equally absurd, like in the case of 300 arrows per second, but you can laugh it off.
In using humour to answer questions that would have otherwise appealed to just geekosphere, he not only makes a compelling invitation to the layman reader, but also, in the course of explaining the weird queries, defogs rather complicated scientific concepts, such as what actually happens in a nuclear explosion and why it causes mass destruction; or the effort required to actually enter or exit the earth’s atmosphere from space, a la Felix Baumgartner.
The questions may sound frivolous, on situations that mostly find a place only in Armageddon novels, but it is still quite interesting to know what actually would happen if the earth stops spinning one fine day, or the sun just goes black, as improbable as that may be. And then there are those cases where everything blows up in the end, a particular favourite for Munroe. Don’t miss the one where he sees how it would turn out if you placed all the elements from the periodic table in cubes next to each other.
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 23-02-2015)