Any time physicists gets together, one of them will tell a very old joke about a farmer who wants to make their farm more efficient. In the joke, a list of inappropriate professionals offer the farmer reasonable suggestions. The punchline comes from the physicist who responds „Well, let’s assume that cows are spheres… „
The actual punchline isn’t in the joke itself—it’s what happens next: one of the physicists listening to the joke will lecture the rest on how the approximation isn’t that bad really. They will end with a list of all the things you can learn about the world from spherical cows. The joke only ends when the bar closes. Physicists: ruining jokes, cows, farming, and most of biology since 1687.
Randall Munroe’s new book, How To, is the spherical cows joke relentlessly replicated and explained without—and this is the important part—removing the humor. Munroe has, as the subtitle Absurd Advice for Real-World Problems explains, produced a book of absurd scientific advice. It is, essentially, a „how you shouldn’t” manual. With that in mind, you should not read How To as you would an ordinary book.
Most books have a common theme or focus. Even if the chapters themselves are disconnected topics, there is something to hold them together. Munroe’s book does not have a theme, making the chapters a set of disconnected and self-contained short stories. The book is leavened with copious XKCD cartoons.
But the text is light enough that the cartoons aren’t necessary: most chapters have a laugh-out-loud moment without the need for visuals. The ones that don’t are still great reads: from tennis champ Serena Williams destroying a drone to pilot-turned-astronaut Chris Hadfield calmly explaining how to land aircraft in weird conditions.
The topics Munroe has chosen are, on the face of it, either absurd or uninteresting. However, these are really just jumping-off points to explore the consequences of some really dumb ideas. Could you move your home using jet engines? If so, how long could it remain airborne? Even though the basic starting point is absurd, the reader gains a sense of scale that can be applied to other problems, some of them potentially useful. Indeed, this is probably How To‚s strongest point: Munroe repeatedly demonstrates how a very simple approach can give you a ballpark answer. In that sense, How To could be a useful teaching tool (…which was genuinely the fate of Munroe’s last book, Thing Explainer. 2017 digital and print editions of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s chemistry, physics, and biology textbooks ultimately contained excerpts of Munroe’s work).
Unfortunately—and this is the danger of reviewing—I read How To from cover to cover in about two sittings. I found that a struggle. The lack of theme and connectedness disengaged me, and I found myself wondering when the book would stop happening to me. Which is a weird thing to write, given that each chapter is funny, well-written, and a great read. There is no single point in the book where I thought, „you know, this just isn’t worth my time.” But How To is less than the sum of its parts because the concept simply doesn’t lend itself well to a continuous read.
Should you buy the book? Yes, but more as a coffee-table book. One where you read random chapters in those moments when you have 10 minutes to spare. Or, perhaps you are a wealthy super villain looking for advice on lava moats? Then How To really is for you.