Here in Boston, you may or may not have heard of xkcd— an award-winning web comic run by former NASA roboticist and Somerville resident Randall Munroe, described by the author as “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” Since July 2012 there has been a sporadically published section of the comic called xkcd-What If, dedicated to answering unusual, often fantastically hypothetical questions posed by readers with hard science.
Last week, Munroe dedicated a “What If” to answering a question that many Bostonians (and commuters) have undoubtedly been asking themselves recently.
“I’ve long thought about putting a flamethrower on the front of a car to melt snow and ice before you drive across it. Now I’ve realized that a flamethrower is impractical, but what about a high-powered microwave emitter?”
As usual, Munroe replies in a spectacularly lighthearted but scientifically grounded fashion. “Believe it or not,” he begins, “ your flamethrower idea is actually the more practical of the two. The flamethrower also has the advantage that, unlike the microwave, it won’t interfere with wifi (unless you aim it directly at the router).”
He goes on to explain that while microwaves heat water very well, they don’t work well on ice. On top of this, it takes a lot of energy to melt snow. Enough that, if you wanted to be going 55 miles per hour and still melt everything in front of you with energy, you’d need the energy generating equivalent of three aircraft carrier nuclear reactors.
It’s certainly a comic for the scientifically inclined, but a goofy one nonetheless. You can see the whole thing here.