Randall Munroe, author and illustrator of pop science webcomic XKCD, speaks at the Alaska State Museum on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, as he promotes his new book. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Randall Munroe, author and illustrator of pop science webcomic XKCD, speaks at the Alaska State Museum on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, as he promotes his new book. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Famous science cartoonist praises importance of questions

He came to Juneau to promote his book of improbable solutions

“XKCD” is a webcomic that’s made its name over the last decade and a half for its wit, scientific and mathematical focus and extremely basic character design.

Its author, Randall Munroe, is no different in person, save that he’s not a stick figure. Giving a talk at the Alaska State Museum on Saturday while promoting his new book, “How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems,” Munroe talked about asking astronauts absurd questions, turning his home into a ball pit and asking Serena Williams to swat drones with tennis balls.

“I really liked running into an interesting question,” Munroe said. “For me, it’s like getting a song stuck in your head.”

Munroe was formerly a roboticist for NASA in Virginia before striking out as a full-time cartoonist. His long running comic, “XKCD,” kicked off in 2005, and has won Munroe acclaim in many circles, including a Hugo Award.

“That’s what I like about doing science and math,” Munroe said. “It gives you a way to find out if an idea will work or not or is good or not.”

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Munroe’s new book, “How To,” consists of improbable solutions to real world problems, such as different kinds of emergency landings. To find his answers, Munroe interviewed subject matter experts, like Chris Hadfield, Canadian test pilot and astronaut.

“I arranged my questions from least ridiculous to most ridiculous and I wanted to see how far up the list I could get before he hung up,” Munroe said.

Munroe said he asked questions like, which kind of crop would make the best field for an emergency landing, could someone land on an aircraft carrier that didn’t want to be landed on and could he land a plane with nothing but well thrown bread rolls.

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Hadfield responded with a list of the best crops to lend in depending on the time of year, that it might be possible to sneak up on a carrier and that landing a single engine plane with bread rolls would be impossible but a multi-engine plane might be merely incredibly difficult.

Munroe also consulted Serena Williams on the best sports equipment to use to take down a drone.

“Reached out to Serena Williams, who was more than willing to contribute some data,” Munroe said. “She actually just volunteered to hit a drone.”

Munroe’s preliminary model suggested five to seven tennis balls to hit a drone. Williams knocked it down in three.

“Maybe it was a statistical outlier. I am more inclined to think it was a Serena Williams outlier,” Munroe said. “I asked kind of sheepishly if she thought this was a good approach to anti-drone countermeasures, and she said no, she did not.”

Munroe also said his favorite questions were ones from kids.

“I think what really stands out is questions from little kids because they are not trying to come up with a cool question,” Munroe said. “They are just coming up with questions that they want answers to.”


• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.


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