Thursday, May 15, 2014

Randall Munroe’s 9-1/2 minute TED Talk: Comics that ask “what if?”

I really enjoyed watching this March 2014 TED talk, since I have been reading his XKCD comics for years. Randall discusses two questions:

1) What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?

2) If all digital data were stored on punch cards, how big would Google’s data warehouse be?

The first question has a surprising answer, that the baseball would become a thermonuclear weapon. His original cartoons had shown the pitch going from right to left. For the TED talk he fixed that detail to more conventionally go from left to right.

The second question visualized 15 exabytes of data as enough punch cards to bury New England about three miles deep. His indirect approach to the answer reminded me of an old essay by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein about estimating the population for the city of Moscow back around 1960.

One of my favorite classic single-panel XKCD comics is SECRET WORLDS. A recent one on TRAIN is hilarious for a very self-centered definition:

A machine that grabs the
 earth by metal rails and
 rotates it until the part
 you want is near you.”

The schematic mushroom cloud came from Wikimedia Commons.

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