Don’t Read this Book if you want Solutions in Life

Cartoonist Randall Munroe shares satirical advice about the world for anyone curious. The creator of the popular webcomic xkcd has come up with solutions to life’s problems. Results may vary.

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Let’s say you wanted to find alternative methods to power your house. Given that the average American house uses about $1,000 per year on electricity, you turn to nature for answers. Creating an electric generator from the movement of Tectonic plates would provide a simple solution to natural electricity. If you lived on a fault line, you can figure out the force the ground exerts over a distance. Multiply this force by the distance to get energy. You decide to build a pair of giant pistons connected to the Earth’s crust. As shown above. As the pistons compress a reservoir of fluid between them, the pressure builds up to drive a turbine.

After giving this advice in his book, “How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems,” cartoonist Randall Munroe admits the system would be “ridiculous and technically infeasible for a lot of reasons,” including cost and size. Yet these explanations make science enjoyable and entertaining no matter what your background is. Munroe’s book explores silly solutions to the most mundane problems in life such as boiling the Kansas river using teakettles so you can cross it, using butterflies to transport data or using liquid nitrogen to create snow when you want to ski. He uses scientific evidence and reasoning to back up his solutions but remains playful in explaining them, no matter how absurd they are. Setting things on fire to generate power and charge your phone can be a lifehack. Or just arson.

A Gift to be Simple

Einstein is often paraphrased as saying, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Regardless of how close this aphorism was to what Einstein actually said, simplicity is important in conveying information efficiently. Too much simplification can lead to poor representations of the universe. Munroe understands this and runs with it. His writing on simple solutions to life’s problems is friendly, lighthearted and approachable for all audiences. Much like his previous book, “Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words,” he knows he can engage a broad audience through the simplicity of science.

Though he seeks to entertain, Munroe remains cognizant about discerning seriousness from satire. He treats the reader like an intelligent being capable of understanding these tones and styles of writing. Even when he uses equations to calculate speed, force and other physical quantities, he presents them in a bite-sized, descriptive that’s easy to digest and follow. You can read the entire book in a single sitting because the explanations flow so naturally and fluidly in each chapter. Reading the book bit by bit, though, may help you become more curious about the world around you as you study Munroe’s explanations closely.

Laughing at Life

Munroe’s book is entertaining in an absurd, surreal way. He treats humans like a specimen under a microscope with enough sarcasm, wit and dry humor to keep you laughing throughout. His humor is more cultural as a satire on the rest of society — even in a self-aware sense. Making fun of the universe is how you understand it better.

Still, some may find the humor isn’t meant for them. Munroe’s style of explaining can come across as pretentious and condescending. Readers may find that explaining simple things that they already understand only serves to show how smart Munroe is as though Munroe were some authoritative voice over all scientific knowledge. Others may find the book’s content short and thin even with thirty chapters. Some of the explanations may seem undeveloped. But the book’s personable, tongue-in-cheek nature leaves it free of presumptuous claims of the reader’s intelligence.

The irony that an engineer would write such a treasonous attack on normalcy and established methods of scientific reasoning may put a smug, smirk on your face. But the book’s value goes beyond a few chuckles. Munroe’s humor instills curiosity and wonder of the world and how bizarre it can be.

As Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage said he would reject reality and substitute his own, much of science and engineering come down to complicated, elaborate interpretations and explanations. You can make friends by physically running into them or jump off a mountain if you want to jump really high. Everything is up to interpretation. Munroe’s wit will let you better understand the craziness of the universe itself. Pick it up and give it a read for the sake of mad science itself. Then dispose of it by shooting it towards the sun.


Originally published at on November 13, 2019.

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