Randall Munroe: Comics that ask “what if?”


Randall Monroe – former engineer at NASA and most known for his webcomic at xkcd.com


Every week on his website xkcd.com, Randall writes a feature called ‘What If’ – where he answers questions using maths and displays them as an explanation interspersed with comics. For example, when asked what would happen when a baseball is thrown at the speed of light, he talks about the interactions with the air – superheating it to plasma and creating a mushroom cloud that would strike the batter. In his opinion, this would constitute a ‘hit by pitch’, and allow the batter to walk to first base (if it still existed).

Randall was asked how big Google’s data centres would be if all their data was stored on punch cards. Noone knows how much data Google holds, but Randall predicted it using estimates of the money Google has, or how many hard drives they use, or how big their data centres are, or how much electricity they used. He can use what he does know to improve the quality of guessing what he doesn’t. He predicted 10 exabytes of data, and perhaps another 5 exabytes of offline data stored in tape drives. A punch card holds about 80 characters, with about 2,000 cards in a box. 15 exabytes would cover the entire area of New England to a depth of 5km. A few weeks later he got a message from Google, consisting of punch cards. This is a puzzle, including a code, which gives them some equations, which Randall eventually cracks to get a message. The message was “No Comment”.

Randall enjoys maths, but not for it’s own sake. He likes using maths to take things he knows and then use them to discover what he could never know.

But sometimes maths cannot help. One of his user questions just contained the subject line “Urgent’ and the question “If people had wheels and could fly, how would we differentiate them from airplanes?”.


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