Thursday, January 8, 2015

Book Review: What If?

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Randall Munroe
Science, humor 

Randall Munroe is a very strange individual, probably in a good way. 

What If is exactly what it says on the tin. It's peculiar, often funny, an easy read, and fairly lightweight. You might pick up some random science facts that you can trot out at parties--thus causing you, by the Law of Conservation of Epistemology, to forget things like the quadratic formula--although you won't really learn much of substance.

Still, there's a hidden value in What If: it gives a pretty good thumbnail sketch of how scientists (and engineers!) actually think. You may well get more out of the book if you read it less for the answers and more for the process of how those answers come about.


  1. So how exactly _do_ engineers think? Inquiring minds want to know.

  2. That's actually a very cogent question. I'd break it down into several aspects.

    * Iterate. What If has some good examples. Randall Monroe starts with the first thing he can calculate. Then he adds another detail, or goes onto the next step. Repeat.
    * Simplify, simplfy. Don't know everything? Approximate. Can't solve every edge case? Solve the core problem, and maybe the edge cases will take care of themselves. What If? shows this, too.
    * Adaptive reuse. Engineering differs from science in that, to vastly over-generalize, it lacks large-scale theory. (I'm planning a long post on this at some point.) A physicist can take an equation, plug in numbers, and get an answer out. An engineer seldom has that luxury. We have guidelines, inductive reasoning, small-scale theories, paradigms, and past experience, but no facts-go-in/answers-come-out mechanism. We operate by cut-and-try: if X is a good general principle, and Y worked on this other, similar problem ... then maybe we can X(Y) and fix Z.

  3. Sounds like a lot of six sigma and kaizen folks I know. But something seems missing in your description. Then again it's just a post and not a book. But most engineers have a lot of creativity. Maybe that's the speculation part of the what if?

  4. Some engineers are more creative than others. I have colleagues whom I'd trust absolutely to implement a design for, say, a rocket car controller, but not to come up with the design in the first place. And vice-versa.

    Engineering creativity is almost always about solving some specific problem. (Granted, sometimes it's a big problem.) The problem might be something that should exist but doesn't, or something that doesn't work, or something that works but isn't elegant. But there's usually a fairly specific impetus.

    I experience artistic creativity somewhat differently. How about you?