Randall Munroe’s “How To” Proposes Ridiculous, yet Scientific Solutions for Common Problems

Randall Munroe, author of the popular webcomic “xkcd,” has announced that he has written a second book, entitled “How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems.” The book, which releases on September 3rd, bills itself as “the world’s most entertaining and useless self-help guide,” and purports to teach a number of impractical yet humorous skills, such as how to take a selfie with a telescope, cross a river by boiling it, and power your house by destroying the fabric of space-time.

Munroe has carved out a literary niche for himself in the humorous application of scientific principles in absurd ways. His previous book, “What If: Serious Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions,” follows a similar train of thought, as the author attempts to explain what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball at 90 percent the speed of light, how fast you could hit a speed bump while driving and live, and how long humanity would live in the event of a robot apocalypse, among other questions. “What If,” released in 2014, has achieved widespread critical and popular acclaim, as the book reached the top of the New York Times’ Bestsellers List a few weeks after its release and was featured as the “Amazon Best Book of the Month.”

An entire community dedicated to understanding and explaining these references has sprung up in response to the comic’s sometimes-obtuse sense of humor

Munroe first gained popularity with the webcomic “xkcd,” which he began in 2006 and has been updating three times a week ever since (the title “xkcd,” styled in all lowercase, doesn’t actually stand for anything – it is simply a four-character string the author chose for its uniqueness). Like his two books, the humor of Munroe’s comic strip is oftentimes found in the misuse of scientific principles – for instance, the comic “Team Effort” portrays a scientist thanking her gut microbiome at an awards ceremony, and the punchline of “Backups” includes a reference to the computer science principle Moore’s Law.

Such esoteric references are par for the course for Munroe. In fact, an entire community dedicated to understanding and explaining these references has sprung up in response to the comic’s sometimes-obtuse sense of humor – the Explain xkcd wiki, which includes an entry for every one of the comic’s 2191 strips, offers a resource for readers who are left scratching their heads. While the obscure nature of xkcd’s humor may be off-putting to many, it also explains the comic’s broad and lasting appeal – fans of the comic tend to be employed in scientific or academic professions, and can get a kick out of finding a reference to their often-overlooked fields of expertise.

Although Munroe is a fairly private person as far as internet celebrities go, he definitely draws from his life experiences as a foundation for his work. Munroe is a former NASA engineer with a degree in physics from CNU who quit his job to work on xkcd full-time. His earliest entries consist of sketches that he drew in the margins of his notebook as a high-school and university student, and the jokes in these comics often refer to the subjects he was studying at the time. And every once in a while, his subject matter strays towards the more personal – he has written comics that address love and relationships, and when his fiancee was undergoing a battle with cancer, his comics became less humorous and more self-reflective, as one comic contemplates the meanings of different prognoses, and another describes the difficulty of keeping a positive attitude while sick.

Though Munroe’s works are primarily meant to make us laugh, they are meant to make us think as well.

Despite the variety in topics Munroe considers, a common thread throughout his works is the presence of a genuine sense of intellectual curiosity. This curiosity is demonstrated in one of Munroe’s most well-known comics, which implores the reader to see another person’s ignorance as an opportunity to teach rather than a cause for ridicule, and is also present throughout the comic’s fanbase, as readers come together to explain the sometimes complex jokes Munroe crafts instead of dismissing them when they don’t understand them. In the introduction for “How To,” Munroe describes what motivated him to write the book:

“This book explores unusual approaches to common tasks, and looks at what would happen to you if you tried them. Figuring out why they would or wouldn’t work can be fun and informative and sometimes lead you to surprising places. Maybe an idea is bad, but figuring out exactly why it’s a bad idea can teach you a lot – and might help you think of a better approach. And even if you already know the right way to do all these things, it can be helpful to try to look at the world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t.”

Though Munroe’s works are primarily meant to make us laugh, they are meant to make us think as well. Munroe’s playful approach to serious subject matter shows us the value of being playful: when we look at things from a silly or absurd point of view, we contemplate these things in different and unique ways, leading to a fresh understanding. This principle is what led to the success of Munroe’s comic and first book, and will likely lead to the success of his latest work.