Tag: Randall Munroe

The Seven Books Bill Gates Thinks You Should Read This Summer

Bill gates
Bill Gates is out with his annual summer reading list and, while longer than last year’s, it’s a great place to kick off your summer reading.

“Each of these books,” Gates writes, “made me think or laugh or, in some cases, do both. I hope you find something to your liking here.”

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh.

The book, based on Brosh’s wildly popular website, consists of brief vignettes and comic drawings about her young life. The adventures she recounts are mostly inside her head, where we hear and see the kind of inner thoughts most of us are too timid to let out in public. You will rip through it in three hours, tops. But you’ll wish it went on longer, because it’s funny and smart as hell. I must have interrupted Melinda a dozen times to read to her passages that made me laugh out loud.

The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford, has a gift for making science enjoyable. This book is as accessible as the TV series Cosmos is for younger audiences—and as relevant for older audiences. It’s an engaging, well-illustrated science textbook offering compelling answers to big questions, like “how did the universe form?” and “what causes earthquakes?” It’s also a plea for readers of all ages to approach mysteries with rigor and curiosity. Dawkins’s antagonistic (and, to me, overzealous) view of religion has earned him a lot of angry critics, but I consider him to be one of the great scientific writer/explainers of all time.

What If?, by Randall Munroe.

The subtitle of the book is “Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions,” and that’s exactly what it is. People write Munroe with questions that range over all fields of science: physics, chemistry, biology. Questions like, “From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?” (The answer, it turns out, is “high enough that it would disintegrate before it hit the ground.”) Munroe’s explanations are funny, but the science underpinning his answers is very accurate. It’s an entertaining read, and you’ll also learn a bit about things like ballistics, DNA, the oceans, the atmosphere, and lightning along the way.

XKCD, by Randall Munroe.

A collection of posts from Munroe’s blog XKCD, which is made up of cartoons he draws making fun of things—mostly scientists and computers, but lots of other things too. There’s one about scientists holding a press conference to reveal their discovery that life is arsenic-based. They research press conferences and find out that sometimes it’s good to serve food that’s related to the subject of the conference. The last panel is all the reporters dead on the floor because they ate arsenic. It’s that kind of humor, which not everybody loves, but I do.

On Immunity, by Eula Biss.

When I stumbled across this book on the Internet, I thought it might be a worthwhile read. I had no idea what a pleasure reading it would be. Biss, an essayist and university lecturer, examines what lies behind people’s fears of vaccinating their children. Like many of us, she concludes that vaccines are safe, effective, and almost miraculous tools for protecting children against needless suffering. But she is not out to demonize anyone who holds opposing views. This is a thoughtful and beautifully written book about a very important topic.

How to Lie With Statistics, by Darrell Huff.

I picked up this short, easy-to-read book after seeing it on a Wall Street Journal list of good books for investors. I enjoyed it so much that it was one of a handful of books I recommended to everyone at TED this year. It was first published in 1954, but aside from a few anachronistic examples (it has been a long time since bread cost 5 cents a loaf in the United States), it doesn’t feel dated. One chapter shows you how visuals can be used to exaggerate trends and give distorted comparisons—a timely reminder, given how often infographics show up in your Facebook and Twitter feeds these days. A useful introduction to the use of statistics, and a helpful refresher for anyone who is already well versed in it.

Should We Eat Meat?, by Vaclav Smil.

The richer the world gets, the more meat it eats. And the more meat it eats, the bigger the threat to the planet. How do we square this circle? Vaclav Smil takes his usual clear-eyed view of the whole landscape, from meat’s role in human evolution to hard questions about animal cruelty. While it would be great if people wanted to eat less meat, I don’t think we can expect large numbers of people to make drastic reductions. I’m betting on innovation, including higher agricultural productivity and the development of meat substitutes, to help the world meet its need for meat. A timely book, though probably the least beach-friendly one on this list.

Here is the video gates showed explaining the reads:

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions


Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd, has written a book: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Here are a few questions, which I loved, that are sure to spark your curiosity and imagination.

What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?

xkcd-baseball 1

The answer turns out to be “a lot of things ,” and they all happen very quickly, and it doesn’t end well for the batter (or the pitcher). I sat down with some physics books, a Nolan Ryan action figure, and a bunch of videotapes of nuclear tests and tried to sort it all out. What follows is my best guess at a nanosecond-by-nanosecond portrait.

The ball would be going so fast that everything else would be practically stationary. Even the molecules in the air would stand still. Air molecules would vibrate back and forth at a few hundred miles per hour, but the ball would be moving through them at 600 million miles per hour. This means that as far as the ball is concerned, they would just be hanging there, frozen.

The ideas of aerodynamics wouldn’t apply here. Normally, air would flow around anything moving through it. But the air molecules in front of this ball wouldn’t have time to be jostled out of the way. The ball would smack into them so hard that the atoms in the air molecules would actually fuse with the atoms in the ball’s surface. Each collision would release a burst of gamma rays and scattered particles.

xkcd-baseball 2

These gamma rays and debris would expand outward in a bubble centered on the pitcher’s mound. They would start to tear apart the molecules in the air, ripping the electrons from the nuclei and turning the air in the stadium into an expanding bubble of incandescent plasma. The wall of this bubble would approach the batter at about the speed of light— only slightly ahead of the ball itself.

The constant fusion at the front of the ball would push back on it, slowing it down, as if the ball were a rocket flying tail-first while firing its engines. Unfortunately, the ball would be going so fast that even the tremendous force from this ongoing thermonuclear explosion would barely slow it down at all. It would, however, start to eat away at the surface, blasting tiny fragments of the ball in all directions. These fragments would be going so fast that when they hit air molecules, they would trigger two or three more rounds of fusion.

After about 70 nanoseconds the ball would arrive at home plate. The batter wouldn’t even have seen the pitcher let go of the ball, since the light carrying that information would arrive at about the same time the ball would. Collisions with the air would have eaten the ball away almost completely, and it would now be a bullet-shaped cloud of expanding plasma (mainly carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen) ramming into the air and triggering more fusion as it went. The shell of x-rays would hit the batter first, and a handful of nanoseconds later the debris cloud would hit.

When it would reach home plate, the center of the cloud would still be moving at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. It would hit the bat first, but then the batter, plate, and catcher would all be scooped up and carried backward through the backstop as they disintegrated. The shell of x-rays and superheated plasma would expand outward and upward, swallowing the backstop, both teams, the stands, and the surrounding neighborhood— all in the first microsecond.

Suppose you’re watching from a hilltop outside the city. The first thing you would see would be a blinding light, far outshining the sun. This would gradually fade over the course of a few seconds, and a growing fireball would rise into a mushroom cloud. Then, with a great roar, the blast wave would arrive, tearing up trees and shredding houses.

Everything within roughly a mile of the park would be leveled, and a firestorm would engulf the surrounding city. The baseball diamond, now a sizable crater, would be centered a few hundred feet behind the former location of the backstop.


Major League Baseball Rule 6.08( b) suggests that in this situation, the batter would be considered “hit by pitch,” and would be eligible to advance to first base.


What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?

This is one the most popular questions submitted through my website. It’s been examined before, including by ScienceBlogs and The Straight Dope. They cover the kinematics pretty well. However, they don’t tell the whole story.

Let’s take a closer look.

At the start of the scenario, the entire Earth’s population has been magically transported together into one place.


This crowd takes up an area the size of Rhode Island. But there’s no reason to use the vague phrase “an area the size of Rhode Island.” This is our scenario; we can be specific. They’re actually in Rhode Island.

At the stroke of noon, everyone jumps.


As discussed elsewhere, it doesn’t really affect the planet. Earth outweighs us by a factor of over ten trillion. On average, we humans can vertically jump maybe half a meter on a good day. Even if the Earth were rigid and responded instantly, it would be pushed down by less than an atom’s width.

Next, everyone falls back to the ground.

Technically, this delivers a lot of energy into the Earth, but it’s spread out over a large enough area that it doesn’t do much more than leave footprints in a lot of gardens. A slight pulse of pressure spreads through the North American continental crust and dissipates with little effect. The sound of all those feet hitting the ground creates a loud, drawn-out roar lasting many seconds.

Eventually, the air grows quiet.

Seconds pass. Everyone looks around. There are a lot of uncomfortable glances. Someone coughs.

A cell phone comes out of a pocket. Within seconds, the rest of the world’s five billion phones follow. All of them —even those compatible with the region’s towers— are displaying some version of “NO SIGNAL.” The cell networks have all collapsed under the unprecedented load. Outside Rhode Island, abandoned machinery begins grinding to a halt.

The T. F. Green Airport in Warwick, Rhode Island, handles a few thousand passengers a day. Assuming they got things organized (including sending out scouting missions to retrieve fuel), they could run at 500 percent capacity for years without making a dent in the crowd.

The addition of all the nearby airports doesn’t change the equation much. Nor does the region’s light rail system. Crowds climb on board container ships in the deep-water port of Providence, but stocking sufficient food and water for a long sea voyage proves a challenge.

Rhode Island’s half-million cars are commandeered. Moments later, I-95, I-195, and I-295 become the sites of the largest traffic jam in the history of the planet. Most of the cars are engulfed by the crowds, but a lucky few get out and begin wandering the abandoned road network.

Some make it past New York or Boston before running out of fuel. Since the electricity is probably not on at this point, rather than find a working gas pump, it’s easier to just abandon the car and steal a new one. Who can stop you? All the cops are in Rhode Island.

The edge of the crowd spreads outward into southern Massachusetts and Connecticut. Any two people who meet are unlikely to have a language in common, and almost nobody knows the area. The state becomes a chaotic patchwork of coalescing and collapsing social hierarchies. Violence is common. Everybody is hungry and thirsty. Grocery stores are emptied. Fresh water is hard to come by and there’s no efficient system for distributing it.

Within weeks, Rhode Island is a graveyard of billions.

The survivors spread out across the face of the world and struggle to build a new civilization atop the pristine ruins of the old. Our species staggers on, but our population has been greatly reduced. Earth’s orbit is completely unaffected— it spins along exactly as it did before our species-wide jump.

But at least now we know.

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is sure to spark your imagination and reignite your creativity.