10 Strange Things I Learned from What If?

Randall Munroe describes himself as “a guy who draws pictures on the Internet. I like it when things catch fire and explode, which means I do not have your best interests in mind.” If you actually took some of his advice, well, it would be entertaining for the rest of us, but might work out poorly for you. That being said, here are some of the strange facts I learned from What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

1. One Foot Per Second

One fan wrote in to xkcd to ask, “If you suddenly began rising steadily at one foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first?” As usual, Munroe doesn’t just answer the question. He also notes that your (dead, frozen) body would take 200 million years to reach interstellar space. It’s really not all that fast when you think about it.

2. Apricity

Apricity means the “warmth of sunlight in winter.” Isn’t it a lovely word? I’m still waiting to casually drop it into conversation.

3. Dying in Rhode Island

Not much would happen if the whole planet’s population gathered in Rhode Island and jumped at the same time. Getting out of Rhode Island, however, would be a nightmare, and most people would die trying to leave.

4. Water on Mars

Whether there is or was water on Mars suddenly became even more interesting when I heard that a cup of warm water on Mars will “try to boil, freeze, and sublimate, practically all at once. Water on Mars seems to want to be any state except liquid.”

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5. Genetic Abnormalities

Spinal Muscular Dystrophy is the most common genetic abnormality found in inbreeding (in humans). The chance of finding it in a non-inbred human is about one in 10,000. If scientists were able to take a woman’s ova and make them sperm cells so that she might impregnate herself, the likelihood of Spinal Muscular Dystrophy jumps to one in 400. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

6. Neutrinos

Munroe writes of neutrinos, “Neutrinos are ghostly particles that barely interact with the world at all. Look at your hand—there are about a trillion neutrinos from the Sun passing through it every second.” That being said, you don’t want to get too close to a supernova.

7. Orbital Speed

If you are on the International Space Station, listening to the entirety of the song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers, you would travel about 1,000 miles by the time the song ends. And now we all have that song stuck in our heads.

8. The British Empire

Technically, the sun has never set on the British Empire, thanks to the Pitcairn Islands, a very tiny settlement in the Pacific still under British governance.

9. Submarines in Space

If you were to find yourself on a nuclear submarine in orbit, try reversing its missiles. You might make it back. Or, pieces of you might.

10. Base-Jumping

If your phone started ringing as you jumped off of Mt. Thor in Canada, you could miss the whole call, with three seconds to spare. It is a 26-second fall. This thought is terrifying to me, and I now have to go sit quietly but firmly on the ground for a while.


Have a fun fact from What If? or xkcd? Let us know in the comments.

Written by

Mark Pearson

Mark Pearson

Mark is a cofounder of Libro.fm. He lives in Seattle where he enjoys running in the rain, playing tennis when the sun makes an appearance, over and undercooking food, and reading The New York Times on paper.

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