Best known as the brains behind the beloved webcomic xkcd, Randall Munroe has recently published a book – “How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems” – all about foolish ideas and the wonderful science behind them. As ever, all of this inadvisable advice is painstakingly calculated and playfully explained with the distinctive stick-people illustrations that make xkcd so lovable in the first place.
If you've ever wondered whether astronaut Chris Hadfield could fly a plane from England to France in the Channel Tunnel, or if it’s possible to predict the weather using pixels on your smartphone, then Munroe is your guy.
“I feel like I’m always coming up with bad ideas for how to do things,” Munroe told IFLScience. “Often, they sound like bad ideas and turn out to be bad ideas. But the process of analyzing and trying to figure out whether they're bad ideas or not can teach you something really interesting.”
“Then occasionally, something that sounds like a ridiculous idea does turn out to be better than it sounded at first. You wouldn’t know that if you didn’t take it seriously for a minute and try thinking about it,” he explained.
While the advice is undoubtedly absurd, the thought experiments help to unearth some fascinating facts and otherwise unknown insights. According to the Munroe school of thought, science is at its most engaging at the most absurd ends of the possible.
Take, for example, Munroe’s friend who text him saying he’s got a nasty ant infestation at his house. Not satisfied with any sensible solutions, Munroe headed towards the decidedly bad idea of whether it would be feasible to protect the house with a moat of lava.
Well, this was a plainly terrible idea. But as he explains in the new book, this bad idea led him on a whole trail of discovery, from the ingredients of lava to the bizarre insects that actually live on recently cooled lava flows called lava crickets. Then comes the task of constructing a lava-proof moat and the energy needed to maintain a hot pot of nicely heated liquid lava (which, according to his calculations, could tip your daily energy bill into the millions of dollars, depending on the desired heat of the lava and size of the moat).
By his own admission, Munroe typically likes to tackle these ideas by himself in true nerdy fashion. However, for this book, a few of the ideas required a helping hand from experts to develop, including an astrophysicist, a robot ethicist, an astronaut, and Serena Williams.
When faced with the task of seeing whether it’s possible to take down a drone using just backyard sports equipment, Randall quickly hit a dead-end.
“I found experiments about the accuracy of football players or baseball, but I couldn’t find data on tennis to support the experiment I wanted, so on a whim I asked Serena Williams.”
To his surprise, she was more than happy to help out. Under the instruction of Randall, she and her husband Alexis Ohanian (coincidentally, the co-founder of Reddit) carried out a scientific experiment that details the reliability of using tennis equipment to take down a drone.
“We stood at the baseline and tried to serve at it until she hit it. My models suggested it would take 5 to 7 shots to hit it at that distance, but she got it on her third serve,” Munroe explained.
“I don’t know if that’s a statistic outlier or perhaps, more likely, it's a Serena Williams outlier.”