A Physicist’s Approach To Other Fields Encapsulated in This Book

Marissa Martinelli is a longtime reader of Randall Munroe’s webcomic xkcd. Martinelli used to chuckle at the disclaimer that was attached for over a decade at the webcomic, as she is an English major. It states:

Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).

Before creating webcomics full time, Munroe worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center (he has a degree in physics).

… while he often uses pop culture or his personal life as fodder for his work, it’s true that sometimes understanding the joke requires knowledge of computer programming or the differences between branches of science. In 2016, though, the warning quietly disappeared from xkcd. When I asked Munroe this week why he took it down, he said he’s less worried about offending liberal arts majors than he is about encouraging others in his field who might genuinely look down on other majors.
“I get along with almost everyone I meet who did physics, but I think the flaw we have is that we think we could do everyone else’s field as well if we tried,” he said. “That attitude has done a little bit more harm than good. It’s nice to have a friendly rivalry, but sometimes that rivalry is only going in one direction, and then maybe it’s not really a rivalry. Maybe you’re just being a jerk. I’m trying not to be a jerk.”

It would be interesting, though, to see a physicist approach different fields, and this is what Munroe does in his new book called How to: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems.

But he does not come off as a jerk, and in fact consults plenty of experts from those other fields and beyond, interviewing Col. Chris Hadfield about how to make an emergency landing and asking Serena Williams to test his theories for catching a drone by hitting tennis balls at one…

The book, according to Monroe, comes from the same way of thinking that inspired “What If?”, the blog in which he answers questions submitted by his readers — weird questions like “how much Force power can Yoda output?” and “If there were a kind of a fireman's pole from the Moon down to the Earth, how long would it take to slide all the way from the Moon to the Earth?”

Check out more about this on Slate.

(Image Credit: Randall Munroe)

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