The Sheldonian was almost literally packed to the rafters on Friday night as excitable nerds of all ages piled in to hear from the veritable genius behind the xkcd comics, Randall Munroe. Munroe is currently touring the UK promoting his new book How To, which contains absurd scientific approaches to everyday problems. He charmed the audience straight off the bat by remarking on the superior beauty of the venue compared to the others he’s visited so far.
The evening’s host, Tim Harford (a best-selling author himself), introduced Munroe by quoting his three favourite xkcd jokes. This may have suggested that the talk might entail something of a celebration of personalities, but fortunately what followed was decidedly a celebration of ideas, and the joy that can be derived from combining science with imagination. Munroe seems to be living out his dreams: having formerly worked for NASA, he’s since produced three best-selling books (with How To already becoming the third) and hundreds of comics, thanks to finding fun ways to help people engage with science. He is an enthusiastic and down-to-earth speaker, even if addressing hundreds of people at a time doesn’t come totally naturally to him - what pervades is his irreverence and a child-like sense of wonder, refined and enhanced by scientific research, occasionally interrupted by thought-provoking tangents.
Munroe began by explaining, by way of an incredible real-life example (which I won’t spoil here as it’s also in the book), that by seeking out absurd solutions to problems, we can gain valuable knowledge that informs more realistic answers. He then proceeded to outline the discoveries from some of his favourite chapters of the book, and the unusual encounters that led to them - for example, he contacted Serena Williams on a whim, and managed to convince her to serve tennis balls at a moving drone, ‘for science’. Similarly, he recounted a conversation with an aviation expert who had told him ‘How To’ make an emergency plane landing in various (often highly unlikely) scenarios - and added purely for the benefit of the audience that the conversation had taken place over the phone, while the aviator was waiting in an airport departures lounge! During a quick Q&A (there were a lot of ideas packed into the short hour-long session!) Munroe also offered a delightful solution to Brexit based on the manipulation of time zones.
The author’s gift as a science communicator (or a self-described ‘thing explainer’) is to make technical, difficult ideas easier to grasp for a non-expert audience, in a way that avoids being patronising or oversimplifying, to the extent that his silliness is also enjoyed by experts. This was very much demonstrated on Friday night, judging by the size of the queue for signings at the end, and demonstrated yet again Blackwell’s gift for curating and attracting renowned speakers who appeal to a wide variety of interests.