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BOUND TO PLEASE / From hot dogs to true love, quirky comic tackles it all

The Japan News

By Heather Howard / Japan News Staff WriterWhat If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

By Randall Munroe

John Murray Publishers pp320

Japanese competitive eating champion Takeru Kobayashi does turn up in some interesting places. “Freakonomics” authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner featured Kobayashi as an example of how to apply their principles in “Think Like a Freak,” and now webcomic creator Randall Munroe has used him to describe what someone could do — in theory — during the 3 minutes 20 seconds they could conceivably spend BASE jumping off Mt. Eiger in Switzerland.

Answer: Kobayashi could help fellow eating champion Joey Chestnut consume a combined total of 45 hot dogs before reaching the ground.

“Pardon?!” will probably be the typical response at this point, but these are the kind of quirky combinations presented in “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions” by Munroe, who draws the popular webcomic xkcd. A former member of the NASA Langley Research Center, Munroe won last year’s Hugo Award for best graphic story with his animated comic “Time.”

At xkcd.com, Munroe fields questions from readers along the lines of “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?” and “What if everyone on Earth had just one soulmate, a random person somewhere in the world?” The technical answers are intriguing enough by themselves: You would, respectively, level everything within about a mile of the ballpark and set off a firestorm in the surrounding city, and find true love in just one lifetime out of 10,000.

Munroe makes the read even better, though, with his deft comic touch — he goes on in the true love tale, for example, to predict that cashier and policeman in Times Square would become highly desirable jobs in a world ruled by this soulmate statistic (those careers involve making eye contact with a lot of people, thereby boosting your chances of seeing The One and recognizing them in an instant).

We also learn that safer parsnips would be one benefit (there are others) of the Sun getting turned off and how many giraffes high the average person could throw a baseball (yes, how many giraffes high).

The questions in “What If?” — some from Munroe’s website, others answered for the first time in the book — cover a wide range, so even if readers find some answers too technical, or just not interesting to them personally, they’re sure to find others they like more. Munroe illustrates them with his witty stick figure cartoons, and includes examples of questions from some potentially disturbed individuals. Many readers’ personal “favorite” may well be the query about what would be the easiest way to increase the number of homes that burn down in the United States each year by at least 15 percent.

As the stick figure below the question says into its cellphone: “Hello, police? I have this website where people submit questions ... ”

Where to Read

Near your computer, so you can access Munroe’s website for more comic fun.

Maruzen price: ¥3,120 plus tax (as of Feb. 12, 2015)

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