The guy who draws those comic strips with stick figures is actually a very capable and talented artist. Physics equations are the surefire road to absurdist humor. It only takes the 1,000 most common words to sell a million books. These are some of the contradictions one grows accustomed to in Randall Munroe’s world.
Munroe, who is the author of two best-selling books What If? and Thing Explainer and has gained Internet celebrity for his incisive XKCD comic strip, has a new book out this month called How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems. In it, he offers hard-won advice in such essential matters as “How to build a lava moat” and “How to catch a drone with sports equipment.” (In the latter chapter, he enlists tennis star Serena Williams to knock a quadcopter out of the air using her powerhouse serves. It only took three tries.)
IEEE Spectrum spoke with Munroe in his fortress of solitude somewhere in Massachusetts. (This interview transcript has been edited.)
Spectrum: Boundaries seem important to your humor—finding them, exploring them, defying them.
Munroe: I was always the kid who, when I played a car racing game, and I’d see cool mountains on the horizon, I’d want to go off the track to get closer to them. You of course run into an invisible wall almost immediately. Games have gotten more sophisticated about that over the years. But I really like any story or any kind of exploration where you get to discover that the world is much bigger than you thought. Some of my favorite (XKCD) comics have been ones where I’ve taken something familiar and gotten to extend it beyond the bounds of where you think it can go.
You were a physics major in college, right?
I had a physics major with a math and computer science minor.
Were you much of a doodler as a student?
That’s actually how I got started doing XKCD. A lot of the early strips I posted were just scans of things from my notebook. I’d post them to share with friends, because the notebooks were falling apart. But then they started getting passed around. So I said, “Well, if you like these things, I can draw more.”
You famously draw stick figures in your books and comic strips. Stick figures are of course canonical in physics lectures, created by physics professors who sometimes seem almost prideful in their inability to draw. But in your work, everything other than the stick figures are actually quite well rendered and carefully drawn—from spaceships to animals to cars and houses and various crazy inventions.
Teaching seems so difficult, and I’m very impressed by people who do it. But one thing for physics specifically, I feel like every physics professor would really gain from having a weekend course in drawing—or even just the basics. A course that taught you how to draw a cube, in perspective. I feel like a lot of my professors would have benefited from just that one specific thing.
What’s your pile of rejected ideas look like?
There’s lots of stuff where I decide it just doesn’t seem too interesting to me. Or where I don’t have a satisfying answer. But there was one example of something I cut from How To, which was “How to dry out your phone if it gets wet.” It’s hard to get a definitive answer on that. The most common suggestion is to put it in a container of rice. And that might be better than doing nothing. But it’s not actually that helpful. You’d do better setting it in a room with a fan blowing over it.
But it happened that one person I was hanging out with accidentally dropped his phone in a lake. And I jumped up and said, “A-ha! I just read everything on the Internet about how to dry out your phone.” But I realized that I didn’t have a great, practical answer. And that’s OK if the practical answer is easy to find somewhere else. But in a situation where I might be the authority that people have read on this, and if I don’t have a good answer and don’t even have a good authority to point them to, it felt weird using it as an example to explore all kinds of physics.
You’ve pioneered a certain kind of scientific absurdist humor. This might be because you make it look so easy, but why do you think more people don’t do stuff like this?
I grew up reading The Far Side, which had lots of biology jokes. There’s the Ignobel Prizes. There’s TV shows like MythBusters and Penn and Teller. I grew up watching Bill Nye The Science Guy. I feel like it’s around. But I think one thing that might get in the way of it is people are worried about being taken seriously. So there are a lot of barriers to freely exploring ridiculous problems in an accessible way. I notice that’s a problem for women who do science communication; they get seen as less serious when they do. I feel like people cut me a lot of slack by assuming that I know what I’m talking about. And I have women friends who are scientists who try to do the same thing, and get more immediate responses like, “Oh, well clearly she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” I think that kind of insecurity breeds a lot of defensiveness and a lot of reluctance to speak in normal terms about things—which makes it harder to speak with the public.
You put disclaimers in all your books never to try your crazy ideas at home. Nevertheless, have you had fans who did try them out?
The nice thing about the kinds of problems I tackle is they’re, for the most part, thought experiments that would have large practical barriers to trying them out—like altering the rotation of the Earth to get to your meetings faster. A lot of the time, I will steer clear of questions that are easy to try and dangerous to do. Often because I’ve found the MythBusters have already done it.
But I do have a few chapters with some practical advice. I have a section on how to take a selfie backlit against the moon—or the even the sun if they have the right filter. It just takes a huge amount of coordination and organization. I took it to an extreme, too. In principle, if you [and someone holding a camera] were several miles away, you could take a photo of yourself, probably on a mountaintop, in front of the disc of Jupiter. It’d involve traveling to find two mountaintops that are aligned just right. But I think someone could do it. I don’t know if anyone has done it.
We’ll notify the IEEE membership.
I did include the Jupiter and Venus examples (in How To) because I do hope someone tries it and posts their results online.
Publishers have a famous aversion to using equations anywhere in non-academic books. You flout that rule all the time. Do you think there’s a good reason for them to be in place?
People have a lot of insecurities and frustrations with math. Everyone I talk to who didn’t do a STEM degree of some kind has a story in which they realized they were not a math person. But I don’t think there really are math people and not-math people. It’s more like music. There is some amount of talent that some people have, sure. But you just have to practice for a long amount of time to get better at it. The secret is it is just tedious. You just do it enough, and it gets easier.
But that’s why I like using math. It lets you get answers to questions that you couldn’t have [arrived at] any other way. You can write down a bunch of things you know and follow these steps on paper. And get an answer that might surprise you and tell you something new. And that’s really cool. I like showing people that aspect of math. And I hope that showing people why I’m doing some equation is helpful. But maybe it does scare people off. So I don’t know the answer to that.
Monty Python has that skit about mosquito hunters who use bazookas and surface-to-air missiles to catch their prey. Like the Pythons, you have a tremendous talent for extracting humor from the dogged pursuit of whatever objective, no matter the apparent cost. Are you obsessive or focused like this in your everyday life?
Talking about how I work, one of easiest questions to ask is what happens if you extend something in this direction or that? Looking at those extremes can get you a better idea of how the thing behaves overall. And often those are also the most fun and vivid examples to think about. Physics is full of atoms and black holes, partly because they represent two extremes of massiveness. And everything else falls between.
This post was updated on 27 September 2019.
A version of this post appears in the November 2019 print magazine as “Randall Munroe Has Absurd Advice for You.”