Absurd answers to common problems

We chat to xkcd author Randall Monroe!
15 October 2019

Interview with 

Randall Munroe, xkcd


Plane flying through light clouds


Moving house can be a pain. So what if, instead of moving all your possessions, you just moved your house? Hmm.... Adam Murphy got to hear all about absurd answer to common problems, whilst chatting with one of his favourite science authors, Randall Monroe.

Adam - XKCD is an online comic written by Randall Munroe. And the stick figures that fill its pages musing about science and technology have something of a cult following - a following that I count myself among. So I was pretty excited to get to interview Randall while he was on tour for his new book, ‘How To’. During his brief stop in Cambridge, he took a break from signing copies at a breakneck speed to sit down in a lecture hall in the Department of Chemistry an hour before his sold-out talk to chat about his new book.

Randall - This is sort of a guide to bad ideas for how to do things. It's not a particularly useful self-help book. I'm the sort of person who's always coming up with really impractical ideas, but then I sort of want to see, “could that work?” A lot of the time it's not easy to tell for sure whether an idea is bad or not, and the process of going through it and analysing it to try to figure out, “what would happen if you really tried to move your house with helicopters instead of having to pack moving boxes?” The process of analysing it can sometimes teach you something that might be useful for an actual problem later on. And even if it's not, it's sometimes just really fun to see how an idea would go wrong. And so with this book I've taken a bunch of common everyday problems and found really interesting research that might be in some sense helpful for solving them, and then looked at what would happen if you tried to apply them, which is often complete disaster. But it's a fun disaster!

Adam - You, for one of the chapters in this, speak with Chris Hadfield. And you threw some really bonkers questions at him he just kind of sailed through. What was that like?

Randall - Oh, that ended up being I think maybe my favorite chapter in the book. He's an astronaut and a test pilot, he's flown over 100 different aircraft, and so... but I was gonna throw these weird situations at him, and ask him, you know, “what would you do if you were locked on the outside of the airplane and had to crawl around pulling on the flaps with your hands?” Or, “how would you land on a submarine?” And my plan was to ask him the easiest questions, and then work my way up through the rest of them until he hung up on me. I should have realised, maybe, that trying to fluster a test pilot by throwing unexpected and extreme scenarios at them without warning may have been a flawed plan. Because everything I asked him, he just answered with no hesitation. He just answered, “oh, well what I’d do is I’d, if I tried to land on a ski jump I would come around and come up from below, but you have to watch out because the stands are really high and they block your likely landing approach.” I was expecting to argue with him about whether or not the scenario even made sense, but he just answered my questions. So I was surprised, but also delighted because it really ended up being I think my favorite chapter.

Adam - So what's your thought process for coming up with solutions to a problem? Because I can say, for example, I'd never have thought of using tectonic shift to power my house .

Randall - When I'm thinking about like what is power, what is energy, the interesting thing about generating power is that it's really easy to… people come up with all kinds of weird ideas, or ideas for how to produce power. Like, what if you put solar panels on top of your house? Or what if you put solar panels on your car to power the car engine? You could lift weights and then have the weights descend and produce power. A few of those are good ideas and a few of those are bad ideas, and you can calculate which one it is, which is really fun! Like there's an objective answer, almost. There's a proposal for a spaceship that was powered by nuclear explosions, Project Orion, that uses the energy from the blast to disintegrate a heat shield and produce thrust that way. But then there's, at the other extreme end there's things that move incredibly slowly but carry a huge amount of force. And in principle you could also use those for power. So I was thinking like, well, there are these tectonic plates moving, and they're moving very slowly but they have this immense force behind them. It's not really momentum, it's just they're being driven by forces under them that we don't totally understand. And so I'm thinking, if you've got force, it's still being exerted over a distance, that equals energy. And so I thought, “well can you get that energy somehow?” And the answer is pretty much no. But I tried to lay out, you know, “here's a way you might try to do it, but it would cost you so much money to build the structure, and so much land to generate just enough power to power a house, that it would take you something like 40 million years to recoup your investment and get enough power where it was worth it. But after that 40 million years then it's all money.

Adam - What would you say the value is in absurd information?

Randall - I think that absurd information is useful because you don't always necessarily know what is going to be absurd until you've thought about it, until you’ve worked through it. Like NASA's method for landing Curiosity on Mars by using a hovering sky crane that would float above the surface on rockets while lowering the robot on the end of a long rope, effectively. Definitely sounds like a ridiculous absurd idea - but it turned out to be the best idea they had, and it worked. And so you never really know what stuff is going to be absurd. And then even if an idea is absurd and you work through it, and you're like, “no, this is actually a bad idea,” knowing that is useful and will often teach you something in the process that could then be useful, and maybe coming up with a better idea later on. And if nothing else it's just kind of fun.


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