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The world’s funniest former NASA roboticist will take your questions

The world’s funniest former NASA roboticist will take your questions



Several decades ago, it took a stand-up comedian like Steven Wright to work in shades of the brilliantly surreal when he deadpanned: “It’s a small world. But I wouldn’t want to paint it.”

Today, it takes a humorous NASA roboticist turned popular cartoonist to finally tackle the question: But what if you did want to paint it?

Imagining such a hypothetical sparks the ever-curious mind of Randall Munroe, the brain behind the webcomic “xkcd” — beloved by math and science geeks the unpainted globe over — who also answers readers’ bizarre and quirky queries on his blog. His replies yielded the best-selling 2014 book “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.”

This week, the Massachusetts-based author follows that up with the equally entertaining “What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions,” which combines Munroe’s true research and truly funny prose with his signature stick-figure illustrations.

In the new book, reader “Josh of Woonsocket, R.I.” poses the potential stumper: “Has humanity produced enough paint to cover the entire land area of the Earth?” Munroe fields the question with his characteristic wit, even while turning to the art of “Fermi estimation” to arrive at some ballpark numbers. Munroe’s guess: We wouldn’t have enough paint for such a global decorator project till the end of this century, soonest.

Other “What If? 2” situations ring of the perilous: What are your chances of death-by-geyser at Yellowstone Park? What would the daily caloric human-intake needs be for a modern T. rex gone rogue in the boroughs of New York? And how catastrophic would it be if, as the children’s tune goes, all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops?

Some concepts are less deadly, such as: What if we launched planes by catapult to save fuel? The author’s response: Such takeoffs in the nation’s capital, say, would require a nearly five-mile runway at Reagan National Airport that “would cross the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument … and then continue through the city, ending somewhere near Dupont Circle.”

It’s easy to see why Munroe’s span of fans includes Neil Gaiman and Bill Gates — and why Serena Williams happily helped the author conduct an experiment to discover: How accurately could you demolish an airborne drone with a tennis ball? (The results appeared in his 2019 book, “How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems.”)

“The reason Munroe’s approach is a great way to learn about science,” Gates wrote in 2015, “is that he takes ideas that everybody understands in a general way and then explores what happens when you take those ideas to their limits.”

Munroe slyly engages with write-in inquiries while either “doing the math” himself or reaching out to field experts.

“When I see a question that’s really interesting, I get sucked in to trying to answer it,” Munroe says last month via Zoom from his home near Boston, where he lives with his wife (whose journey of surviving breast cancer has been depicted poignantly in such “xkcd” strips as “Ten Years”).

“Often what really drives me to pick a question is when there’s one I think I know what the answer is, but I’m not sure if I’m right or not,” he adds. “Because then I feel like I want to go and look it up to find out if my instinct was right or not. Because either then I get to validate myself — ha! I called it — or I learn something surprising and then have to dig into more to figure out why I was wrong.”

Munroe’s blog-adapted books can have a distinct format of setup questions and generally extended answers. So befitting that spirit, The Washington Post offers a similar format to highlight what else you should know about Randall Munroe.

Q. What is the impact to your life’s direction if a college adviser tells you: “You can’t have all the candy in the candy store.”

If the subject of the study is Munroe, then the impact is substantial.

He majored in physics and minored in math and computer science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. While Munroe considered continuing his studies in 2006, an adviser told him he would need to “narrow in on” what he would pursue in graduate school.

“You can’t keep working at these different things,” he recalls being told, despite his passion for a multivaried, “all the candy” approach — so he decided against graduate study. In 2005, he had landed an internship at NASA Langley Research Center. He ended up working there in 2006, too, focusing on robotic navigation until his contract ran out.

Q. How does a stick figure-drawing scientist suddenly become a viral cartoonist?

Munroe began posting his comics online in the fall of 2005. He soon had a burgeoning following. Fan letters would say: “I’m so excited to know that there’s somebody else out there who’s into this one thing,” he recalls.

Munroe also names several other people who studied physics before switching to cartooning, including Bill Amend (“Foxtrot”) and Zach Weinersmith (“Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal”).

He laughs with humility. “In fact, of all of the people who got degrees in physics but did a career change into cartooning and who were born on Oct. 17, I am the second most successful.” Okay, who’s No. 1? He grins: “Mike Judge.”

Q. If you ask scientists their age, will they tell you without double-checking the numbers first?

In the case of Munroe, at least: No. He takes a second to do some “mild subtraction,” he says wryly, to absolutely confirm his reply: He is 37.

Q. A child is born into a Pennsylvania Quaker family. He has a father who is an engineer and marketer, as well as two siblings. Who will influence him the most?

“It was really my mom where I got a lot of kind of interest in maps and patterns,” Munroe says of the parent who excelled at charting the family driving routes during his boyhood spent in Easton, Penn. (where he was born) and Massachusetts before he graduated high school in Midlothian, Va.

Munroe recalls once being allowed a snack in bed when he was age 5. He told Mom he’d previously been permitted to eat in bed once, when he was 2. Her reply: “So you can do it again when you’re 8. It’s only when you’re one less than a multiple of 3.”

To young Randall, such math somehow was fair. His mother also kept a record of his boyhood questions like: “Are there more hard or soft things in the world?” Munroe credits the PBS series “Square One Television” for helping to foster such thinking — and “Calvin and Hobbes” and Dave Barry for helping to shape his appreciation of humor.

Q. Why do kids seem to ask the best “What If?” questions?

In Munroe’s new book, children younger than 6 want to know how to build a billion-story building, or wonder what would happen if our solar system were filled with soup all the way out to Jupiter? (In this “Soupiter” scenario, the author responds, this “black hole of soup” would exert a gravitational pull.)

Elsewhere, a ninth-grader asks how long it would take for a person to fill a swimming pool with their own saliva, and a 5-year-old wonders about the physics of a firefighter’s pole running from the Earth to the moon.

When adults pose a “What If?” question, they frequently “frame it in a way that they think will be and sound interesting and have an interesting answer,” Munroe says. An adult might write in: “What if I took a nuclear bomb and I put in on a train and then the train was going at near the speed of light … and what if the train is in a vacuum,” the author says. “They’ll construct this whole scenario where they’re trying to make it cool.”

Kids, by contrast, will “just ask actual questions they want to know the answer to.” A billion-story building scenario is “a much better question than a train-vacuum-nuclear bomb question would be.”

Plus, the kid questions are “ultimately much more destructive,” he says, so their imaginative inquiries “win on both counts.”

Q. Many of the “What If?” scenarios end badly for those who happen to be human. Can Munroe’s research provide any reassurance?

“There are just so many things that can go wrong in the world,” the author says. “It’s so hard to think about it all in a psychologically healthy way.”

And analysis doesn’t necessarily anesthetize us. “I once heard a microbiologist online say something like: If you study the microbiome, you eventually become either a total [germ-]obsessed person who won’t shake hands, or you’ll eat food off the floor.”

“For me, these ways of thinking about things and trying to quantify stuff and try to figure out how does it fit into a bigger picture, I don’t know that it’s necessarily a good or bad coping mechanism,” Munroe says. “It’s just how I do it.”

Randall Munroe will appear in-person and virtually on Wed., Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. at Sixth & I in Washington.

#worlds #funniest #NASA #roboticist #questions




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