Randall Munroe's Absurd Science For Real-World Problems : Short Wave Randall Munroe, the cartoonist behind the popular Internet comic xkcd, finds complicated solutions to simple, real-world problems. In the process, he reveals a lot about science and why the real world is sometimes even weirder than we expect. His new book is called How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems. Follow host Maddie Sofia on Twitter: @maddie_sofia. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.
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Randall Munroe's Absurd Science For Real-World Problems

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Randall Munroe's Absurd Science For Real-World Problems

Randall Munroe's Absurd Science For Real-World Problems

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

OK, nerds, time for a thought experiment. Say you're trying to throw a pool party tomorrow, but your pool is missing kind of a key ingredient - water.

RANDALL MUNROE: If you can't get water from - you know, there's no stream. Your town water supply doesn't give you enough water pressure to fill it. Could you just go online and order, like, 100,000 bottles of Fiji water...

SOFIA: Right.

MUNROE: ...And just empty them into the pool?


SOFIA: Maybe not the first thing you'd think of, but you're not Randall Munroe.

MUNROE: I'm a cartoonist and author of books about science.

SOFIA: This is what Randall Munroe does. He asks questions like, what's the fastest way to fill a pool with roughly 100,000-some bottles of water?

MUNROE: And then that made me realize, like, it would take more than a day to unscrew all the bottle cap - tops.

SOFIA: Sure. Yeah. He calculated it.

MUNROE: And that led me into, OK. Well, wait. How do you get water out of a whole bunch of these bottles? And that led me into reading about a government experiment where they wanted to see - there's a giant report on this - the effects of nuclear weapons on commercially packaged beverages.

SOFIA: Sure.


SOFIA: For Randall, this experiment is not about filling a pool. It's about asking a question that leads to another question. It reminds me a little of going on Wikipedia to read one thing and then getting interested in another and then another.

Is this how your brain works? (Laughter).

MUNROE: It's certainly how Wikipedia works.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

MUNROE: Yeah, no. One of the things that's really fun is being able to, like, ask a simple question, get an answer. But then that answer raises a whole bunch of new questions. And the process of it is just really fun.


SOFIA: So this episode, Randall Munroe on his new book How To: Absurd Scientific Advice For Common Real-World Problems.

I'm Maddie Sofia, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: So Randall Munroe has been using science and math to answer pointless but fascinating questions for years through his books and his comics - questions like, what would nuclear weapons do to 100,000-some water bottles? For Randall, the fun part about asking that question in the first place was learning that somebody else already had - the U.S. government in a Cold War-era experiment.

MUNROE: Where they bought drink bottles from local stores and tested nuclear weapons on them.

SOFIA: Right. And you said it was, like, beer and water. And was there something else?

MUNROE: Yeah, no. It was mostly beer, and I think there was soda. And what they were doing was they were trying to see whether or not the bottles would be damaged or be contaminated in some way because they wanted to know if after a nuclear attack, would it be safe to use beverages from, you know, a convenience store?

SOFIA: Right.

MUNROE: But I loved reading then about the experimental protocol they used, where it's like, they got all these things from - a couple different crates of beer and soda and stuff. And they laid them in different directions on the desert floor so that some of them would be pointed toward...

SOFIA: Yeah.

MUNROE: ...The epicenter. Some of them would be pointed up. Some of them would be up on a shelf. And so then I just got - went down this rabbit hole of reading about this weird test. And part of me reading it, when it talked about how we procured them from a local establishment, you know, for the purposes of this test - part of me wondered if the entire thing had just been invented as a cover story because someone was caught buying drinks for a party...

SOFIA: Right, right (laughter).

MUNROE: ...On their government account.

SOFIA: OK, so I have to admit one of your chapters that was my favorite has a lot to do with me being...


SOFIA: ...A '90s kid and that - right? You knew it. And so there's this, like, how to tell if you're a '90s kid. So I grew up in the '90s, and this chapter got me, especially the part about chickenpox parties. So if people don't know, what's a chickenpox party?

MUNROE: It used to be that when chickenpox was a universal thing that virtually every kid got, generally, you're better off getting it when you're a little kid than when you get older. And so parents, when a kid got chickenpox, would have a chickenpox party, where they intentionally would expose their kids.

SOFIA: Right. So if you were, like, an early '90s kid...

MUNROE: Yeah, this was...

SOFIA: This was one way to tell if you were that kid...

MUNROE: Absolutely. You know...

SOFIA: ...Because you had a chickenpox party.

MUNROE: I think I got chickenpox before my parents had a chance to hold a party.

SOFIA: Right.

MUNROE: But it definitely was just the normal thing to do.

SOFIA: So I was hanging out with my mom this weekend because I'm very cool. And I asked her about my very own chickenpox encounter, and I recorded it so I could play it for you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have good friends coming in from New York state, and they stopped on their way in Pennsylvania and said, hey. Our daughter just broke out in chickenpox. We can turn around. So I quickly went to the calendar because I knew it had a two-week incubation period, saw that it fell on Christmas break. And I didn't want to take a lot of time off, so (laughter)...

SOFIA: So you got me infected with chickenpox because it was convenient...


SOFIA: ...For your calendar?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes. It was one of my mother-of-the-year moments, yes.

SOFIA: Does that jive with what you - with your research? (Laughter).

MUNROE: I don't know. Juggling parenting schedules is hard. I got some sympathy.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

MUNROE: And this is - so this was just a thing you'd do. You'd intentionally give your kids chickenpox.

SOFIA: So that was one thing where you're like, you can tell if you're a '90s kid if you had a chickenpox party.


SOFIA: And that drops off pretty rapidly in the mid-'90s, when the vaccine becomes available.

MUNROE: Yes. And because parents - you know, maybe parents who are my age don't know that they're not supposed to hold chickenpox parties still.

SOFIA: Right.

MUNROE: And so some kids are getting exposed who wouldn't ordinarily because parents are - still think they're supposed to help chickenpox along.

SOFIA: OK, so you talked about, like, another cool/complicated way to know when somebody was born, and that's based on traces of radioactivity in our teeth.


SOFIA: Talk about that a little bit.

MUNROE: Once again, a lot of this book is coming back to weird stuff we did in the 1950s and 1960s.

SOFIA: Right.

MUNROE: One of the things that we did was we set off a whole bunch of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, especially in like a very short burst in the very early 1960s.

SOFIA: Right. I didn't realize how many just tests - like, just, like, baseline nuclear tests we were doing, right?

MUNROE: Yeah, yeah.

SOFIA: I thought it was, like, test before we drop the bomb. That's it.

MUNROE: Yeah, no. There were enough of them that they were doing all kinds of very specific tests. Like this test is going to be how soda bottles react to a nuclear explosion.

SOFIA: Right.

MUNROE: This test will be how this particular model car responds. And this spread radioactive fallout around the Earth. It really upended the concentration of different rare isotopes in the atmosphere. So one of the places where you would see this is the levels of Strontium-90 that have - Strontium-90 will be incorporated into bony tissue when it's forming. And then over the years, most of the tissue in your body turns over. But the really hard enamel in your teeth has a turnover time that's more - it lingers for decades. And stuff that's trapped in the teeth can stay there. And these are going to be - you know, it's like a handful of particles, just like a trace amount sort of like souvenirs that you could spot those tiny traces of people whose teeth were forming at the time when the atmosphere was really radioactive from these tests.

SOFIA: And you had said something interesting in the book, which is that scientists actually collected baby teeth in the '50s and '60s to make a case for this moratorium on atmospheric testing, right?

MUNROE: Yeah. There was a big study - a St. Louis-based study where they collected a gigantic number of baby teeth. It was, you know, something in the tens of thousands to maybe - you know, maybe more. And we're measuring them to see if there was a noticeable increase in the products of fallout because in the very early era, I think, we didn't really appreciate - you know, there were all these ideas like, hey. We could use nuclear weapons to dig canals. We could use them for all this stuff that was a lot more appealing before we started to understand that they have effects that are different from ordinary explosives that we might use.

SOFIA: Right.

MUNROE: And so they were looking at the baby teeth, and they found that they had these elevated levels of various fallout products. That was really a big part of what pushed for the final - in the early- to mid-'60s, they passed a series of atmospheric testing bands.

SOFIA: Yeah. So you've said before that one of the reasons you like coming up these complicated ways to solve simple problems is it reveals the world's even weirder than we think it is. Why do you think it's important for people to know, like, how weird our world is?

MUNROE: I don't know. I think everyone is kind of interested in the world. That sounds very broad. But, like, I think everyone is really curious about how and why things are the way they are. And, like, a lot of the people - you know, Carl Sagan would talk a lot about how people who flock to, you know, weird theories or pseudoscience, you know, things that promise answers, it's not necessarily, like, that they have a different attitude toward understanding the world. It's just they're looking for answers where they can. You know, they're looking to try to understand things the same as everyone else. What's exciting is showing that these tools of science give you a way to get those answers and, you know, to open up new areas to explore and that that's just really cool and really exciting.


SOFIA: OK, Randall, I appreciate you. You consistently do an awesome job making science fun and weird. And I think we could always use more of that.

MUNROE: Oh, thank you.

SOFIA: So thanks for coming by.

MUNROE: Yeah. No, thank you for having me on. It was really great to talk to you.

SOFIA: I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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