Originating in sixth-century Zen Buddhism, the term mu means “no thing”—not yes, not no—and is commonly interpreted as a rejection of binary thinking. In the digital age, where everything is either a zero or a one, open-source software advocates interpret mu as a query that demands a conceptual rather than literal response, or, to put it another way, it requires un-asking the question. Randall Munroe, the webcomic phenomenon and longtime open-source advocate, has been un-asking questions for 14 years. Though the titles of Munroe’s last two books—What If? and Thing Explainer—promise answers, even instruction, their author takes such a tangential, interrogative, inherently curious, and assumption-free approach to problem solving that the results end up being as absurd as they are informative.
Take this quandary from Munroe’s latest book, How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems (Riverhead, Sept.): “How to Move.” On the surface, the problem is simple enough: transporting stuff from one place to another presents no immediately confounding issues, beyond the obvious. “At some point in the move,” Munroe writes, “many people take a look at all their possessions, realize how much work will be involved in moving, and realize that it would be easier to push everything into a hole and walk away, leaving it all behind. This is absolutely an option! Should you decide to take this route, turn to chapter 3: How to Dig a Hole.”
For those who want to keep what they own, Munroe has some ideas. “Let’s say you can walk while carrying about 40 pounds,” he writes. “As a general rule of thumb, all the furnishings and possessions in a typical 4-bedroom house will weigh around 10,000 pounds, which means you’ll need to take a total of 250 trips. If you have 3 people helping you, and you can walk 10 miles a day, it will take you 7 years to move.”
A better solution could be to forgo packing and just move the house. People do this every day, as anyone who has spent much time on the interstate can attest. To puzzle out this solution, Munroe spoke with a friend whose job happened to be issuing wide-load permits. It turns out they are highly restrictive. This could, he considers in the book, result in getting pulled over, which might lead to a dispute over warrantless searches, and the legal difference between a vehicle and a dwelling. “It’s just a huge headache that people don’t realize,” Munroe says. “And it got me thinking. Maybe you can bypass all that by just going up.”
Only Munroe would arrive at a solution to a simple problem that required dismantling a 787 Dreamliner. “Most jet engines produce their maximum thrust when they’re at standstill, so they work really well for hovering,” Munroe says, thrilled as a toddler with a new, noisy toy. We’re chatting over the internet—Munroe in an austere white room in his home in “the Boston area” (he would like his precise location to remain unclear), me having just left “the Boston area” for Northern California. An invisible digital matrix stretches between us from sea to shining sea, compressing all of America into a hum of zeroes and ones—as binary as it gets. “But then it became a question of, ‘Well, wait a minute, can you carry enough fuel to hover any appreciable length of time?’ ” Munroe says. “And suddenly it has introduced all these new problems that I feel compelled to solve. The cool thing with physics is that it gives you the tools to answer the question whether there’s any good reason to answer it or not. Physics doesn’t care if the questions you’re asking it are stupid.”
Munroe has been making his living for the past 14 years by throwing stupid questions at physics and seeing what sticks. In fall 2005, when he was a physics major in his final year at a college in Virginia, Munroe began uploading his doodles to the internet at xkcd.com. By cartoon standards, they were as basic as it gets: stick figures. But it was the concerns plaguing his characters—their existential crises, scientific conundrums, and roller coasters of romantic love—that made xkcd rise above the digital noise. Though his comic had fans from the start—and would eventually garner awards, including a Hugo—early breakouts such as “Pi Equals” and “Sudo-Sandwich,” which were extremely funny and very brainy, won him the admiration of influential techies inside companies such as Amazon, Boing Boing, Google, and Reddit. Before he’d graduated, Munroe was working for NASA. But a year in, he was making more money selling xkcd T-shirts than building robots, so he left NASA to focus on internet humor full-time. He was 23.
A book soon followed, xkcd: volume 0, which sold primarily through Munroe’s web store, with proceeds donated to literacy nonprofit Room to Read. In a 2009 interview, Munroe told the New York Times that his book didn’t need to be in bookstores. “I don’t have hard numbers about this,” he said. “But the impression I get is that the amount of eyeballs you get from being on the humor shelf at Barnes & Noble—it is almost insignificant.”
Munroe may have been right. Not only did the book sell well (over 25,000 copies in its first six months, according to its publisher, Breadpig) but a handful of packed reading events raised enough money to build a school in Laos. In those days, Munroe didn’t think of the physical book as all that different from his digital comic: “It was another type of material with designs printed on it,” he says. He calls partnering with Breadpig, created by Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, “halfway between working with a publisher and self-publishing with some friends.”
But five years on, when he was ready with book number two, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Munroe embraced traditional publishing. “It’s helpful to work with people who know how to sell things,” he says. “There are all these people out there who wouldn’t have grown up reading my website and don’t read comics online but are still interested in, like, what happens if the moon crashes into things.”
The idea for What If? came when Munroe volunteered to teach a class on energy to high school students at MIT. He noticed how engaged they became when tasked with solving a ridiculous problem rather than sticking with the textbook material. He took the idea to the web, attaching a blog to xkcd and asking readers for queries. The book, published in 2014, featured a selection of those queries, such as, “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?” (answer: awful, terrible things) and, “What would happen if everyone on earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?” (answer: not much, followed by awful, terrible things).
What If? hit #2 on Amazon’s bestselling books list 24 hours after Munroe announced its existence and six months before its pub date, and it would go on to sell close to 725,000 copies, according to NPD BookScan.
For How To, Munroe asked the questions himself. “Part of it,” he explains, “was just thinking about stuff I have to do everyday, or problems I could think of a fun way to solve, whether or not it’s important or useful. I have an idea for how you could do this, but I don’t know if it would work, and now I’ve got to go figure it out.”
In the book, Munroe considers basic problems such as how to move, fun problems such as how to throw a pool party (if you don’t have a pool), and problems nobody should really have, such as how to build a lava moat (without prohibitively high heating and cooling costs)—all with his unique blend of the scientific and the silly, and his surprisingly expressive stick figures. “I wanted to find stuff that you could do any number of different ways, and there was obviously a right way,” Munroe says. “And I could ignore the right way and focus on the wrong ways.”
For Munroe, questions are opportunities to expand, and problems are possibilities to explode. After all, to answer a question is to end the conversation, and that’s the last thing he wants to do.
Mike Harvkey is the author of the novel In the Course of Human Events.