One afternoon, many years ago, our physics teacher interrupted the class to make us all stand on chairs. Kid One got to put his finger in the middle of this weird-looking, whirring, machine-type thing. Then Kid Two had to grab his arm, as did Kid Three, and so on. I was a timid little thing back in those days, and found this whole exercise weird and decidedly not to be trusted. So I was the last Kid to grab onto what was by then a whole chain of kids, at which point I got a ginormous electric shock that nearly threw my arm out of its socket. I learned three important lessons that day: hanging back is not always a good idea; Van de Graaff generators are deeply dangerous; and you should never mess with electricity.
Now admittedly, those might not have been the lessons my physics teacher was trying to share. But the story comes to mind when watching Randall Munroe’s charming investigations into what things mean and how they work. Munroe’s web series, “What If?”, sees him trying to answer dumb-questions-that-aren’t-so-dumb-after-all, and he tackles them with a seriousness befitting the most deadpan comedian. Because, the thing is, he really does want to answer the questions properly, and if we pay attention, we can really learn something meaningful from his investigations. So his “What If?” question, “At what speed would you have to drive for rain to shatter your windshield?” teaches us about shockwaves and the speed of sound. “What if we were to dump all the tea in the world into the Great Lakes? How strong, compared to a regular cup of tea, would the lake tea be?” prompts the initial, hilarious answer, “Weak, bordering on homeopathic,” before teaching us about both calculating area and volume and the Boston Tea Party.
This clash of the absurd and the thoughtful creates something unique on the web today, and is likely why both “What If?” and its brother site, “the webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language,” xkcd, are so beloved. Both are a very good reminder that it’s possible to treat serious subjects with levity, and it’s more than likely that you’ll remember the lesson way longer that way.