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How To

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems

Randall Munroe
Riverhead Books
2019
320 pp.
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How To, by webcomic artist and former NASA roboticist Randall Munroe, tackles various problems with uncommon solutions and, in the process, takes readers through an exploration of scientific and engineering problem-solving. This collection follows on Munroe’s previous book, Thing Explainer, which uses illustrations and the 1000 most commonly used words to explain complicated science topics. The new book tackles problems from the mundane—such as how to move to a new house—to those that may trouble a mad scientist building her first lava moat. The solutions are often hilariously, and purposefully, absurd. Embedded in these solutions, however, is solid scientific, engineering, and experimental understanding.

A great example of Munroe’s approach can be found in the section “How to make an emergency landing.” To help answer the question, he recruits Canadian astronaut, engineer, and ex–test pilot Colonel Chris Hadfield. Munroe ramps up from (relatively) easy questions, quickly escalating to increasingly absurd situations—pondering, for example, how to sell off bits of the plane before it lands. Hadfield, ever the good sport, tackles each new situation seriously, deftly applying his decades of experience to Munroe’s questions. Although your chances of walking away unscathed from such a landing are still minimal, you will gain a better understanding of the control mechanisms of planes, how the space shuttle works and lands, and which crops provide the best surface to land on (freshly planted corn up until June).

Fans of Munroe’s long-running comic strip XKCD will be familiar with his artistic style of simple stick figures immersed in elaborate technical illustrations and will find plenty to love in this new book. Readers new to Munroe’s work will enjoy the comics that help to demonstrate or occasionally exaggerate the scientific principles behind his solutions.

Although it is rare to go more than a page without a comic or illustration, the accompanying text in How To is not filler but approachable explanations that detail the scientific concepts that underlie each problem. This occasionally leads to phrasing that underestimates the reader—for example, when Munroe explains the children’s game “tag” or how the various forms of football work—but it does make the concepts more digestible for a wider audience and is sometimes useful for comedic affect. Although a lighter read than many others reviewed in these pages, How To would make an excellent gift to help spark a student’s interest in science and engineering and would likely be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates science-based, but Rube Goldberg–esque, solutions to life’s problems.

About the author

The reviewer is an immunologist based in Washington, DC, USA.