Thursday, 23 February 2017

xkcd: What if?

I have no idea whether I have stumbled on something here that is already wildly popular, and I am merely revealing how sadly out of touch I've been, or whether this is an opportunity to draw attention to a highly amusing - and yet intriguing - scientific publication. (Probably I have been desperately out of touch...)

Anyway, this was new to me in September 2014, when I came across a freshly-published book on the shelves of Walter Henry's Bookshop in Bideford:


The book is a collection of oddball questions put to the writer, Randall Munroe, on his website xkcd (see https://what-if.xkcd.com/ - scroll down to get a full idea of how the website works) and his serious answers to the cream of those questions. Not only does he provide words, but pictures - illustrating the answers with matchstick men and girls, and more realistic drawings of whatever is under discussion, if that will reveal what happens more clearly.

The dust-jacket dinosaur drawing could be in response to the question 'What might happen if a Tyrannosaurus Rex were lowered into a hole in the ground containing a very hungry alien creature with tentacles, and presumably horrible razor-sharp teeth, who wanted to eat the dinosaur alive?' That's the kind of question that gets put on the xkcd website. Some are very fanciful, but none of them are totally silly when you give them some attention. Various principles of physics will need to be examined, and some weird thinking may be necessary, including (in this case) what the appalled but cunning T Rex might do to save itself. Well, what does a lizard do in a tight spot? More on that poor dinosaur in a moment. Let's look at some of the many other topics that Randall Monroe treats seriously and provides an in-depth response to.

For instance, questions like this:


As you can see, the question might be wacky, but the answer is not. Here are some others.


Apparently you can get airborne from a machine-gun recoil! More:


That one above is one of the more intriguing! The answer is quite a long one, with many world maps showing how things proceed. I'm not going to give it all away. You must find out! Yet more:


Randall Monroe doesn't answer all the queries submitted to his xkcd website, but the book does mention some of the more unusual or worrying ones he had to ignore:


The website also has links to various other webcomic artists that Monroe likes, and whose output he wants to share. Worth investigating.

Back to that T Rex. I couldn't trace the original question and the textual answer in the website archive, so presumably this was a drawing Munroe produced specially for the dust-jacket only. I really wanted to know what happened to the beast. Was it eaten? Or did it figure out a way to escape? I didn't find the answer until - only a few days ago - I took the dust-jacket off, revealing further drawings on the hard front and back covers of the book itself:


Ah! Two humans have used a crane to lift a (presumably highly sedated) Tyrannosaurus Rex over that hole, and are going to lower it into the tentacled maw of whatever dreadful creature lurks down there. Clearly the T Rex has just woken up, and realises its peril.


Clever dinosaur! It swings from side to side as lowering commences, and succeeds in touching down on the ground around the hole, though barely escaping the reach of those grasping tentacles. It quickly bites through the rope it's tied to, and races after a fleeing human. My money is on the T Rex getting itself a pleasant lunch, and possibly having seconds.

The alien creature is left hungry. That may of course prove dangerous. Nothing in the cartoon suggests that the creature, goaded by frustraton and an empty tummy, can't leap (or ooze) out of its hole and gobble up whatever comes immediately to hand, such as a dinosaur enjoying a peaceful post-prandial nap nearby.

Randall Monroe has a Wikipedia entry (which is more than I have) - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randall_Munroe.

Something in one of Munroe's website answers led me on to Scott Manley, another discovery - next post.

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