BAN #145: how to buy randall munroe’s new book, Explodey supernova debris

September, 2, 2019   Issue #145

[Saturn image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute / Gordan Ugarkovic]

Subscribers fling the debris of wonderfulness across the galaxy.

Book ’em

Sometimes I read books

Some book reviews are easier than others.

For example, this entire newsletter article could be simply stated as:

Randall Munroe wrote a new book.

Seriously, what else do you need? If you read my newsletter than the odds are incredibly high you also read or know about xkcd, Randall’s ridiculously popular and deservedly so web comic. And if you do, you know how good it is, and therefore any book he writes will be great. If you’ve read his previous books, what if?, and Thing Explainer, then you know he’s also really good at the book thing.

So a review seems unnecessary. Of course it’s just terrific. It’s like trying to do a review of a Toblerone bar. Anyone who’s had one and likes Swiss chocolate knows they’re really scrumptious, so reviewing one only helps if someone has never had one before, and then it’s just a matter of taste anyway.

Still, if you need to know anything more about Randall’s new book, how to, it’s him writing about using science to do easy tasks in absurdly difficult ways. I mean, come on. That’s quintessential Randall.

But just in case: I’m reading it now, and it’s excellent. Really funny, really smart, really thought-provoking (if you’re considering, for example, ways to build yourself a lava moat), and really just what you’d expect from the guy who does xkcd. If you still need further convincing, here’s a sample.

[Here’s how he signed my copy.]

I was really happy to find out he was going to San Diego Comic Con in July, and we wound up spending most of a day together. Quite a bit of that was spent talking about lava moats. Like, how much energy it would take to build one, to melt the rock, the keep the rock molten, and how much it would cost in real dollars. We also talked a lot on how to win (or lose) an election. Both of these topics are in the book, along with many others. I laughed a lot while reading it, even while my brain hurt.

That’s sort of my relationship with Randall boiled down to its essence: After talking with him I feel dumber and smarter. Dumber because he is extraordinarily talented at not just retaining information in his brain, but also finding connections between it all and then relaying it in really funny ways. By comparison I feel a little thick. BUT. I also feel smarter, because when I talk to him I learn things, and I see his thought processes, and somehow (osmosis? Psychic-ness? Or applying the skillset that a brain naturally comes with anyway?) I’m able to think a little bit more clearly about things.

His books do the same thing. By reading them, you’ll see a different way of seeing the world. A more thorough and funny one, even if it’s plainly daft.

And that is certainly enough reason to get the book. So please do.

Blast from the Past

A quick link to an old post or article because it’s relevant, or came up in conversation, or just because it deserves a second look.

As you’ll see in the Blog Jam section below, on Thursday I wrote about the expansion of the Cas A supernova remnant seen by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. It reminded me that last year I wrote about a similar thing: The expansion of the Crab Nebula supernova remnant, except instead of professional astronomers using a bazillion dollar orbiting telescope, it was an amateur astronomer using a 0.44-meter ‘scope. That’s still a fantastic piece of equipment, don’t get me wrong, but it’ll set you back substantially less than something NASA needs to launch.

Anyway, the astronomer is Detleff Hartmann, and he observed the Crab from 2008 to 2013, and in his excellent images you can see the material moving slowly outwards. Well, slowly to us, since from 6,500 light years the many thousands of kilometers per second velocity of that debris is apparently diminished somewhat. Still, watch it because it’s awesome:

Neat! The expansion becomes really apparent when the video resets from 2013 back to 2008. You can actually use observations like this to trace the motion backwards and get the date of the explosion. It’s not perfect, but it gets in the right ballpark, as I explain in the article. The light from this event arrived at Earth on July 4, 1054, if you’re curious.

Nerd note: Whenever my wife asks what time it is and it happens to be 10:54, I tell her, “Crab Nebula time”. It’s a wonder she’s stayed married to me all this time.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[Starhopper doing its hopping thing. From Wednesday’s article. Credit: SpaceX ]

Monday August 26, 2019: The asteroid Ryugu is a weird, fragile thing

Tuesday August 27, 2019: As a Jupiter storm erupts, ALMA peers below its clouds

Wednesday August 28, 2019: Amazing Video: SpaceX Starhopper test hop to a height of 150 meters

Thursday August 29, 2019: Watch the expansion of the Cas A supernova remnant with your own eyes!

Friday August 30, 2019: The day the Moon ate Saturn

Et alia

You can email me at (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!