I’m excited to announce that I’m publishing a What If? sequel! What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions will be in stores 9/13, and is available for preorder now!
In What If 2, I answer new questions I’ve receieved in the years since What If? was released. People have asked about touching exotic materials, traveling across space and time, eating things they shouldn’t, and smashing large objects into the Earth. There are questions about lasers, explosions, swingsets, candy, and soup. Several planets are destroyed—one of them by the soup.
Like What If?, What If? 2 also features collections of short answers, new lists of weird and worrying questions, and some of my favorite answers from the What If site. If you want to get it when it’s released, you can preorder a copy!
In addition to the above, I got to meet so many other cool people during the tour, including Simone Giertz, Scott Manley, and lots of researchers, engineers, science-enthusiast kids, and other people working on all kinds of neat stuff. And thank you to everyone who waited an extra 5 minutes to get a book signed because there was a seismologist in line and I couldn’t stop myself from asking them a bunch of questions about earthquakes.
Here’s an excerpt from the How To chapter on file transfers.
Chapter 19: How to Send a File
Sending large data files can be difficult.
Modern software systems have moved away from the concept of “files.” They don’t show you a folder full of image files; they show you a collection of photos. But files linger on, and will probably continue to do so for decades to come. And as long as we have files, we’ll need to send them to people.
The simplest, most obvious way to send a file is to pick up the device the file is stored on, walk over to the intended recipient, and hand it to them.
Carrying computers can be difficult — especially the earlier ones that were the size of a whole room — so rather than carry the whole computer, you can try detaching a piece of the computer containing the file. You can then bring this piece to the other person and let them transfer it to their own device. On a desktop-style computer, the files may be stored on a hard drive, which can often be removed without destroying the computer.
On some devices, though, file storage is permanently attached to the electronics, making removal more challenging.
A more convenient and less destructive solution is removable storage. You can make a copy of the file, put it on a device, then give the device to the person.
Carrying storage devices around is a surprisingly high-bandwidth way to transfer information. A suitcase full of MicroSD cards contains many petabytes of data; if you want to transfer very large amounts of data, mailing boxes of disk drives will almost always be faster than transferring them over the internet.
If you want to send data to a specific location that’s too far to walk, but not convenient to reach by mail — say, a nearby mountaintop — you could try using some kind of autonomous vehicle to carry it. A delivery drone, for example, could easily carry a small satchel of SD cards containing terabytes of data.
Quadcopter-style drones don’t work very well over long distances thanks to the limitations of batteries. If a drone has to carry its own battery, it can only hover for so long. If it wants to hover longer, it needs to carry a bigger battery, but that means more weight and faster power consumption. For the same reason that a house supported by jet engines [Note: For more on hovering houses, see Chapter 7: How to Move] can only hover for a few hours, small coaster-size drones typically have flight times measured in minutes, and the larger ones used for photography are usually limited to less than an hour in the air. Even if it flew very fast, a tiny drone carrying a MicroSD card could make it just a few miles before running out of steam.
You could increase your range by making the drone bigger, adding solar panels, flying higher, and going faster. Or you could turn to the real masters of efficient long-distance flight:
Monarch butterflies travel thousands of miles during their migration across North America, with some traveling all the way from Canada to Mexico in a single season. If you look up during the spring or fall on the East Coast of the United States, you can sometimes spot them gliding by silently overhead, a few hundred feet above the ground. Their extreme range puts drones — and even many large aircraft — to shame.
You might think butterflies have an unfair advantage over battery-powered aerial vehicles, since they can stop to consume nectar and “recharge.” Butterflies will certainly refuel if they can, but they don’t necessarily need to. Another butterfly species, the painted lady (Vanessa cardui), is even more impressive: it flies from Europe to central Africa, a 4,000-kilometer flight that takes it over the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara desert.
Butterflies make these journeys powered only by small reserves of stored lipids. They can fly so much more efficiently than drones in part by soaring — they seek out thermal columns and mountain waves, then hold their wings steady and ride the rising air upward like a vulture, hawk, or eagle.
If you want to send your file to someone who lives along the migration route, could you get a butterfly to carry it for you?
Butterflies can carry weights. Volunteers with groups like Monarch Watchtag tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies each year to track their migration and monitor their population (which has been in decline in recent decades). The smaller tags weigh about a milligram, but monarchs have completed their migration with larger tags that weigh 10 mg or more.
MicroSD cards weigh several hundred milligrams — comparable to the weight of a butterfly — so butterflies would have a hard time carrying them. But there’s no reason a storage device can’t be made smaller. MicroSD cards contain memory chips, and the storage density of these chips might be up to a gigabyte per square millimeter. Given those sizes, a butterfly could easily carry a tiny chip with a gigabyte of data. If your file is larger than that, you could break it up across multiple butterflies, and send multiple copies for redundancy.
When your data finally arrived at its destination, the recipient would have to check a lot of butterflies to assemble all the pieces of the file. You may need to develop some kind of touchless butterfly scanner that allows them to scan many butterflies at once.
You could avoid that problem — and increase your bandwidth dramatically — by using DNA-based storage. Researchers have stored data by encoding it into a DNA sample, then sequencing the DNA to recover it. Systems like this can achieve densities far beyond anything we do with chips — it’s possible to store and recover hundreds of petabytes of data using a single gram of DNA.
Each year, tens to hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies arrive in Mexico to spend the winter together in giant colonies in the mountains. If you tagged ten million of these butterflies with tiny pouches containing 5 mg of DNA storage each, the total capacity of the butterfly armada would be about 10 zettabytes — 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. That’s roughly the total amount of digital data in existence in the late 2010s.
If the Sun is warm, the winds are favorable, and it’s the right time of year, you could use butterflies to send someone the entire internet.
And Naitian Zhou of Ann Arbor, Michigan built an interactive tool that can generate arbitrary grammatical sentences using Python language tools and a database of book titles.
We’ll be reaching out to the runners-up to send them a signed book or a personalized drawing of their bookstore or library. Thank you so much to everyone who participated!
The How To book tour starts on September 3rd in Cambridge. I’ll be appearing in conversation with some very cool people, including researchers, journalists, and cartoonists. We’ll be discussing How To, science, comics, the destruction of the universe, and the ethics of hitting drones with tennis balls.
Some of the events are already sold out, so if you want to attend, you may want to get tickets now!
One of the most exciting things about writing How To was that, for a few chapters, I was able to reach out to some extremely cool people who were willing to apply their unique expertise to ridiculous tasks. Among those who generously agreed to help was Serena Williams.
Here’s a portion of the chapter “How to Catch a Drone”, in which Serena helped test whether tennis serves could be an effective countermeasure against flying robots … by taking a drone out onto a court and hitting tennis balls at it until it crashed.
How to Catch a Drone
A wedding-photography drone is buzzing around above you. You don’t know what it’s doing there and you want it to stop.
Let’s suppose you have a garage full of sports equipment— baseballs, tennis rackets, lawn darts, you name it. Which sport’s projectiles would work best for hitting a drone? And who would make the best anti-drone guard? A baseball pitcher? A basketball player? A tennis player? A golfer? Someone else?
There are a few factors to consider — accuracy, weight, range, and projectile size.
One sport I couldn’t find good data on was tennis. I found some studies of tennis pro accuracy, but they involved hitting targets marked on the court, rather than in the air.
So I reached out to Serena Williams.
To my pleasant surprise, she was happy to help out. Her husband, Alexis, offered a sacrificial drone, a DJI Mavic Pro 2 with a broken camera. They headed out to her practice court to see how effective the world’s best tennis player would be at fending off a robot invasion.
The few studies I could find suggested tennis players would score relatively low com- pared to athletes who threw projectiles— more like kickers than pitchers. My tentative guess was that a champion player would have an accuracy ratio around 50 when serving, and take 5–7 tries to hit a drone from 40 feet. (Would a tennis ball even knock down a drone? Maybe it would just ricochet off and cause the drone to wobble! I had so many questions.)
Alexis flew the drone over the net and hovered there, while Serena served from the baseline.
Her first serve went low. The second zipped past the drone to one side.
The third serve scored a direct hit on one of the propellers. The drone spun, momentarily seemed like it might stay in the air, then flipped over and smashed into the court. Serena started laughing as Alexis walked over to investigate the crash site, where the drone lay on the court near several propeller fragments.
I had expected a tennis pro would be able to hit the drone in five to seven tries; she got it in three.
For more on anti-drone strategies, sports projectile accuracy, a discussion with a robot ethicist about whether hitting a drone with a tennis ball is wrong, and many other topics, check out How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems, available September 3rd (preorder: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Apple Books).
Want a personalized sketch of yourself as an xkcd-style stick figure? If so, you can preorder my new book How To and submit this form to enter a contest to win a personalized sketch of yourself!
Fifteen entrants will be randomly chosen to win a personalized stick figure portrait. I’ll draw a sketch of you and send it to you, so you can share it online, hang it on your wall, use it as your social media avatar, or whatever else you’d like.
There’s more information at the contest page here, and you can find out more about How To and read the introduction to the book here.
I’m really excited about it! Here’s the first preview of what’s inside:
How to Jump Really High
How to Throw a Pool Party
How to Dig a Hole
How to Play the Piano
How to Make an Emergency Landing
How to Cross a River
How to Move
How to Keep Your House from Moving
How to Build a Lava Moat
How to Throw Things
How to Play Football
How to Predict the Weather
How to Play Tag
How to Ski
How to Mail a Package
How to Power Your House (on Earth)
How to Power Your House (on Mars)
How to Make Friends
How to Send a File
How to Charge Your Phone
How to Take a Selfie
How to Catch a Drone
How to Tell If You’re a Nineties Kid
How to Win an Election
How to Decorate a Tree
How to Get Somewhere Fast
How to Be On Time
How to Dispose of This Book
In addition to the main chapters, the book also features short guides on topics including tornado chasing, dog walking, and highway engineering.
This is a book of bad ideas.
At least, most of them are bad ideas. It’s possible some good ones slipped through the cracks. If so, I apologize.
Some ideas that sound ridiculous turn out to be revolutionary. Smearing mold on an infected cut sounds like a terrible idea, but the discovery of penicillin showed that it could be a miracle cure. On the other hand, the world is full of disgusting stuff that you could smear on a wound, and most of them won’t make it better. Not all ridiculous ideas are good. So how do we tell the good ideas from the bad? We can try them and see what happens. But sometimes, we can use math, research, and things we already know to work out what will happen if we do.
When NASA was planning to send its car-size Curiosity rover to Mars, they had to figure out how to land it gently on the surface. Previous rovers had landed using parachutes and air bags, so NASA engineers considered this approach with Curiosity, but the rover was too large and heavy for parachutes to slow it down enough in Mars’s thin atmosphere. They also thought about mounting rockets on the rover to let it hover and touch down gently, but the exhaust would create dust clouds that would obscure the surface and make it hard to land safely.
Eventually, they came up with the idea of a “sky crane” —a vehicle that would hover high above the surface using rockets while lowering Curiosity to the ground on a long tether. This sounded like a ridiculous idea, but every other idea they could come up with was worse. The more they looked at the sky crane idea, the more plausible it seemed. So they tried it, and it worked.
We all start out life not knowing how to do things. If we’re lucky, when we need to do something, we can find someone to show us how. But sometimes, we have to come up with a way to do it ourselves. This means thinking of ideas and then trying to decide whether they’re good or not.
This book explores unusual approaches to common tasks, and looks at what would happen to you if you tried them. Figuring out why they would or wouldn’t work can be fun and informative and sometimes lead you to surprising places. Maybe an idea is bad, but figuring out exactly why it’s a bad idea can teach you a lot—and might help you think of a better approach.
And even if you already know the right way to do all these things, it can be helpful to try to look at the world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t. After all, for anything that “everyone knows” by the time they reach adulthood, every day over 10,000 people in the United States alone are learning it for the first time.
That’s why I don’t like making fun of people for admitting they don’t know something or never learned how to do something. Because if you do that, all it does is teach them not to tell you when they’re learning something . . . and you miss out on the fun.
This book may not teach you how to throw a ball, how to ski, or how to move. But I hope you learn something from it. If you do, you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000.
Here’s my panel/event schedule. If you’re attending, come see me there!
THURSDAY JULY 18, 2019
6:30 – 7:30 PM CONDENSING AN IDEA: MAKING THE DIFFICULT PALATABLE Location: Room 26AB How do you distill a story down to its main components? Comics often call for brevity, but how does that work with a complex story or idea? Comic-Con special guests discuss how they delve into their complex worlds of comics and come out the other side with stories we readily consume. Panelists include Kurt Busiek (Avengers), Jon B. Cooke (Comic Book Artist), and Randall Munroe (xkcd), along with Dani Colman, Tea Fougner (editorial director for comics, King Features Syndicate), and moderator Barbara Dillon. More info:https://sched.co/Rlvs
FRIDAY JULY 19, 2019
10:00 – 11:00 AM THE FACTUAL AND THE ACTUAL Location: Room 32AB Enjoy exploring science, history, space, and more through sequential art with Randall Munroe (How to), John Hendrix (The Faithful Spy), Don Brown (Rocket to the Moon! Big Ideas That Changed the World #1), Dylan Meconis (Queen of the Sea), Jim Ottaviani(Hawking), and Rachel Ignotofsky (Women in Art) in conversation with librarian Judy Prince-Neeb (Chula Vista Public Library). More info: https://sched.co/RqBO
SATURDAY JULY 20, 2019
10:00 – 11:00 AM SPOTLIGHT ON RANDALL MUNROE- How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common, Real-World Problems Location: Room 4 Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd, discusses his new book How To, a guide to using science to turn everyday problems into much bigger, more exciting problems. Learn how to cross a river by boiling it, get tips on how to make skiing much more dangerous using liquid oxygen, and hear about his experience asking famous experts the most ridiculous questions he could think of. More info: https://sched.co/Rra2
3:00PM ADVANCED GALLEY SIGNING Location: Random House Booth #1515 Come by the Penguin Random House booth to get a signed advanced copy of Randall Munroe’s forthcoming book “HOW TO: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems.” Tickets are required for all signings at the Penguin Random House book and are available first come, first serve and while supplies last. Tickets will be distributed approximately 10 minutes before the start time.
SUNDAY JULY 21, 2019
1:00 – 2:00 PM SHORT FORM COMICS FOR EVERY READER Location: Room # 28DE Aminder Dhaliwal (Woman World), Ebony Flowers (Hot Comb), Kevin Huizenga (The River at Night), Randall Munroe (What If), and Sophie Yanow (The Contradictions) are masters of the short form comic, whether serialized online, in pamphlets, or collected in graphic novel form. Sarah Mirk, senior editor at The Nib, leads a conversation on pacing, flow from story to story (or strip to strip), and much more. More info: https://sched.co/Rsrz
Don’t see your city on the list? You can invite me! I’ll be adding one more US stop to my tour based on the results of a challenge.
The challenge: Write the best story using nothing but book covers.
Arrange the titles of your favorite books into sentences that tell a story, assemble a single continuous line of people holding up the covers, and take a photo or video documenting your feat. You can make the story as long as you want, but each book needs to be held by a different human.
Creative grammar is fine, and you’ll get extra credit for including as many books and people as possible.
Once your photo or video entry is ready, share it in one of two ways:
POST it on social media using the hashtag #howtoxkcd
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 3 CAMBRIDGE, MA
7:00 PM | HARVARD SCIENCE CENTER presented by HARVARD BOOKSTORE
Sanders Theater, 45 Quincy St, Cambridge, MA 02138 Tickets and information
WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 4 WASHINGTON, DC
7:00 PM | SIDWELL FRIENDS SCHOOL presented by POLITICS & PROSE
Meeting House, 3825 Wisconsin Ave, Washington, DC 20016 Tickets and information
THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 5 NEW YORK, NY
7:00 PM | COOPER UNION presented by STRAND BOOK STORE
E 7th St, New York, NY 10003 Tickets and information
FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 6 ANN ARBOR, MI
7:00 PM | RACKHAM AUDITORIUM presented by LITERATI BOOKSTORE
915 E Washington St, Ann Arbor, MI 48109 Tickets and information
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 8 PORTLAND, OR
7:30 PM | POWELL’S CITY OF BOOKS
1005 W Burnside St, Portland, OR 97209
Event information coming soon! Click here to pre-order the book with Powell’s.
MONDAY SEPTEMBER 9 SEATTLE, WA
7:00 PM | THIRD PLACE BOOKS
17171 Bothell Way NE, #A101, Lake Forest Park, WA 98155 Tickets and information
TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 10 SAN FRANCISCO, CA
7:30 PM | FIRST CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH OF BERKELEY presented by KPFA and PEGASUS BOOKS
2345 Channing Way, Berkeley, CA 94704 Tickets and information
WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 11 SANTA CRUZ, CA
7:00 PM | SANTA CRUZ BIBLE CHURCH presented by BOOKSHOP SANTA CRUZ
440 Frederick St, Santa Cruz, CA 95062 Tickets and information
THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 12 LOS ANGELES, CA
8:00 PM | ARATANI THEATER presented by LIVE TALKS LA
244 S. San Pedro Street, Downtown Los Angeles, CA 90012 Tickets and information
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 14 SALT LAKE CITY, UT
7:00 PM | LIBBY GARDNER HALL @ UNIVERSITY OF UTAH presented by WELLER BOOK WORKS & UTAH TRIANGLE FRATERNITY
1375 Presidents’ Cir, Salt Lake City, UT 84112 Tickets and information
MONDAY SEPTEMBER 16 KANSAS CITY, MO
7:00 PM | UNITY TEMPLE ON THE PLAZA presented by RAINY DAY BOOKS
707 W 47th St, Kansas City, MO 64112 Tickets and information
TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 17 CINCINNATI, OH
7:00 PM | JOSEPH-BETH BOOKSELLERS
2692 Madison Rd, Cincinnati, OH 45208 Tickets and information
WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 18 LOUISVILLE, KY
7:00 PM | LOUISVILLE FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY presented by CARMICHAEL’S BOOKSTORE
301 York Street, Louisville, KY 40203 RSVP/more information
THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 19 RALEIGH, NC
7:00 PM | HUNT LIBRARY @ NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY presented by QUAILRIDGE BOOKS
1070 Partners Way, Raleigh, NC 27606 Tickets and information
I’m excited to announce that I have a new book coming out! It’s titled How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems, and it’s an extremely unhelpful guide to solving everyday problems.
How To is an instruction manual for taking everyday problems and using science and creative thinking to turn them into much bigger and more exciting problems. It teaches you how to cross a river by boiling it, outlines some of the many uses for lava around the home, and walks you through how to use experimental military research to ensure that your friends will never again ask you to help them move.
From changing a lightbulb to throwing a pool party, it describes unusual ways to accomplish common tasks, and analyzes what would happen to you if you tried them. In addition to being a profoundly unhelpful self-help book, it’s an exercise in applying math, science, and research to ordinary problems, and a tour through some of the strange and fun science underlying the world around us.