Xkcd Creator Randall Munroe on the Joys of Overthinking Everything

Including how to conduct an interview.

Cover: One female-looking stick figure carries a ladder while seemingly following a stick figure wearing a hat; a third stick figure stands on two drones while trying to replace a lightbulb.
Randall Munroe

For more than a decade, Randall Munroe’s web comic xkcd came with a disclaimer attached:

Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).

As a longtime reader of xkcd—and as an English major—I used to chuckle at the warning when I saw it. Munroe has a degree in physics and worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center before turning to comics full time, and while he often uses pop culture or his personal life as fodder for his work, it’s true that sometimes understanding the joke requires knowledge of computer programming or the differences between branches of science. In 2016, though, the warning quietly disappeared from xkcd. When I asked Munroe this week why he took it down, he said he’s less worried about offending liberal arts majors than he is about encouraging others in his field who might genuinely look down on other majors.

“I get along with almost everyone I meet who did physics, but I think the flaw we have is that we think we could do everyone else’s field as well if we tried,” he said. “That attitude has done a little bit more harm than good. It’s nice to have a friendly rivalry, but sometimes that rivalry is only going in one direction, and then maybe it’s not really a rivalry. Maybe you’re just being a jerk. I’m trying not to be a jerk.”

Munroe’s new book, How to: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems, is all about taking a physicist’s approach to other fields. But he does not come off as a jerk, and in fact consults plenty of experts from those other fields and beyond, interviewing Col. Chris Hadfield about how to make an emergency landing and asking Serena Williams to test his theories for catching a drone by hitting tennis balls at one. Where his previous book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, was a guide to complex subjects using only the thousand most common words in the English language—tectonic plates, for instance, are “flat rocks we live on”—How To does just the opposite. Munroe takes seemingly ordinary activities like skiing or taking a selfie and finds amusingly intricate methods for tackling them, illustrating each section with graphs, diagrams, and his signature stick figures.

Munroe says that How To comes from the same mindset that inspired What If?, the blog in which he answered reader-submitted questions about how much Force power Yoda can output, or how long it would take to slide down a fireman’s pole from the moon. “It’s like getting a song stuck in my head,” he said. “When someone asks ‘What would happen if you tried this?’ and I think I have an idea of how to figure it out, I have to stop in the middle of the street and start Googling.” He often tries to apply the same dogged problem-solving strategies to finding more efficient ways to everyday tasks—digging a hole or mailing a package, for instance—only to find that his solutions are usually not so efficient. “In theory, it should save time in the long run, but it almost always would’ve been faster to just do it the regular way. Every time, I fool myself into thinking it might really work.”

But every now and then, he points out, outrageous-sounding solutions to problems really are the best way to do something, as when NASA landed the Curiosity rover on Mars using a sky crane, or how researchers use electrofishing to study fish populations. “If you describe what it is, it sounds like it was come up with by a little kid who doesn’t know how electricity works,” Munroe said. “What if I drop a toaster in this pond, and then the electricity zaps the fish so they float to the surface? But that’s actually how it works.” Munroe thinks about electricity a lot, calling energy an “accounting system for keeping track of the potential to do work” and getting excited talking about different ways of generating power—especially the ones that are wildly impractical. In How To, the “How to Charge Your Phone” section proposes converting an escalator into a water-wheel–style generator.

The bad ideas in How To are thought experiments, not actual advice. The book even comes with a disclaimer of its own: that Munroe is a cartoonist “who likes it when things catch fire or explode” and whose instructions should be disregarded accordingly. In “How to Send a File,” he considers how many butterflies it would take to carry data chips of information to the recipient. In “How to Play Tag,” he pits sprinter Usain Bolt against Hicham El Guerrouj, who holds the mile-run world record. He even created an animated interactive calculator on xkcd to accompany “How to Throw Things” that lets you input your own variables for the thrower (you, Pikachu, George Washington) and the thing being thrown (a basketball, Thor’s hammer, George Washington).

Munroe has such a wide-ranging array of interests that talking to him is a bit like going down a rabbit hole on Wikipedia—a site that he has obviously spent a lot of time on and often finds its way into his comics. One making fun of words that Wikipedia uses too often briefly inspired a meta (and now-deleted) Wikipedia page for the made-up word malamanteau in 2010, which Munroe says was completely unintentional. He has also illustrated other Wikipedia controversies not of his own making, such as a 40,000-word debate on the Star Trek Into Darkness talk page about whether the word into should be capitalized.

Xkcd has inspired a wiki of its own, Explain xkcd, where fans dissect every comic and share their theories, including about Munroe himself. On the talk page for the “Randall Munroe” entry, one user speculated that Munroe pranked Wikipedia editors into putting the fact that he was raised as a Quaker in his bio to illustrate the fake-news cycle of “citogenesis,” a concept perhaps explained best by Munroe himself. “No, I was really raised Quaker,” he said bemusedly, when I asked him about the speculation. (He hasn’t spent much time on Explain xkcd, believing instead in “the death of the author.”) He does note that a friend once added “Randall Munroe is a self-described ‘pen/pencil operator’ ” to his page and it remained on the site for years, apparently because nobody bothered to check the citation. (On Wikimedia Commons, at least, it still remains.)

In the spirit of How To, I decided to put Munroe’s own Wikipedia-esque knowledge to the test by asking him—off the cuff, giving him no time to prepare or look anything up—how he would approach a particular topic: “How to Conduct an Interview.” He immediately begins by identifying the basic mechanic at work: in this case, asking people questions and then the subject answering them. “For starters, you’d have to be able to hear each other, and quickly enough that they can answer your question and you can ask another one,” he says. “We’ve got the fundamental limit of sending information at the speed of light, so you’ve got to be closer than, y’know, 20 light-years to each other. There’s a constraint there.”

That’s only the beginning. Next, Munroe says he remembers reading a sci-fi story, though he can’t recall the title, about a first-contact scenario that involves people trying to negotiate light-years away. “They finally realize that the best way isn’t to send questions and wait for responses, it’s just to both continually transmit streams of information adjusting as they went because the interview format didn’t work,” he says. So that’s one option. Here on Earth, where Munroe and I are only a couple hundred miles apart instead of in different galaxies, our actual phone call faces a somewhat smaller obstacle: There’s a bit of a lag, so he’d look into correcting that to make the conversation as natural as possible. He’s also been reading about how old phones had feedback tones that let you hear your own voice naturally, something cellphones have eliminated. “I think I’d try to look into whether that’s true or not.”

Now that he’s established that we’re close enough to conduct the interview in this hypothetical scenario—“and there’s also some really interesting research about virtual environments”—Munroe really starts riffing. “There was someone who gave a sermon in the 1700s who supposedly spoke to a crowd of 20,000 people or something like that,” he says, bringing up a study conducted by the Music and Audio Research Lab at NYU, building on an experiment conducted by Ben Franklin. “Modern acoustics engineers modeled the buildings and figured out in optimal conditions the most people who would be able to hear. So there’s the possibility of a parallel interview where you shout questions and a whole crowd of people shouts their answers at the same time. I wonder if there’s something you could do with a parabolic dish to disentangle the different speakers. You could have a whole bunch of different microphones and ask, ‘How is everyone doing?’ and then pick out the one person in the crowd who’s like, ‘Not great today,’ and see what’s going on.”

Munroe isn’t sure how the signal processing would work, but he sounds excited about the possibility, and he says his next step would be to research listening equipment. “That’s probably where I’d be going next—if I weren’t literally on an interview right now.”

Cover: One female-looking stick figure carries a ladder while seemingly following a stick figure wearing a hat; a third stick figure stands on two drones while trying to replace a lightbulb.