What The If? podcast

What The If?

Learn how to think like EINSTEIN! Every week we learn science running imaginative thought experiments. Our brilliant guests are some of the world’s greatest science fiction writers, scientists & science communicators. Leap into a journey to answer the most fascinating question in the universe: What The IF?

Learn how to think like EINSTEIN! Every week we learn science running imaginative thought experiments. Our brilliant guests are some of the world’s greatest science fiction writers, scientists & science communicators. Leap into a journey to answer the most fascinating question in the universe: What The IF?

 

#356

GLASS Bones & ACID Blood!

Explore a world where life is based on silicon instead of carbon, swimming in sulfuric acid oceans and breathing in clouds of acid rain. Imagine transparent armadillo-like creatures with glass bones, communicating through resonant frequencies. Ponder the possibilities of silicon-based trees with blue interiors and the challenges of interspecies cohabitation. This episode delves into the chemistry, biology, and potential evolution of silicon-based life forms, from microscopic bacteria to intelligent civilizations. --- Find out more about Gaby's science fiction short story! Here are the links for the anthology. The physical copy can be ordered here : https://www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention The ebook can be ordered here: https://www.neonhemlock.com/ebooks/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention ... Read more

22 Jun 2024

53 MINS

53:01

22 Jun 2024


#355

Humans SPIRAL into PIZZA Madness!

Inspired by a fascinating article about why moths are lured to lights at night, this mind-bending episode explores a wild scenario - what if humans navigated the world like moths, perpetually drawn to the scent of pizza? Delve into the intricacies of moth navigation, ant death spirals, and how our cities and societies might be organized around an insatiable pizza obsession. From pizza-oriented city grids designed to capture savory scents to pharaohs using pizza to construct pyramids, the hilarious thought experiment takes you on a journey that will change how you see pepperoni forever. --- Find out more about Gaby's science fiction short story! Here are the links for the anthology. The physical copy can be ordered here : https://www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention The ebook can be ordered here: https://www.neonhemlock.com/ebooks/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention ... Read more

14 Jun 2024

46 MINS

46:14

14 Jun 2024


#354

NITROGEN Doomsday!

In this mind-blowing episode, we explore how one man's quest to create artificial fertilizer transformed the trajectory of human history. Inspired by listener Martin from Frankfurt, we dive into the story of Fritz Haber, whose discovery of the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia not only revolutionized agriculture and saved billions from starvation but also fueled the rise of chemical weapons in World War I. From explosive bat guano to the delicate balance of ding-dongs and Twinkies, we unravel the complex web connecting fertilizer, food production, and the very bombs that shaped the 20th century. Brace yourself for a wild ride through the unintended consequences of scientific breakthroughs! —

Here’s Martin’s email to us which includes lots more information and links to learn more about his intriguing IF! From: Martin Subject: A world without NH3 (a What The If idea) I had another idea for a potential IF, or - to give credit where credit is due - my colleague Thomas has it. He read that BASF in Germany has sold an NH3 (ammonia) plant in Ludwigshafen (their main production site) after having produced NH3 there since 1913 It was the first industrial plant that realized the -then- completely new Haber-Bosch process. So Thomas asked: what (the if) would a world without NH3 look like? Then we started discussing :-) It's sort of chemist's lore that Haber and Bosch tested many, many catalysts before they found a good one to combine N2 and H2 to NH3. Some sources put the number of tested catalyst formulations to as many as 2500 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/haber-bosch-process#:~:text=In%20order%20to%20find%20a,Germany%2C%20now%20part%20of%20Ludwigshafen). What if they lost interest after test #1000 (and never found the iron-based catalyst that was ultimately the one)? Probably this (hypothetical) failed attempt on large scale would deter other groups of scientists at that time to even start their own catalyst developments? Anyhow, let's assume there has never been an industrial NH3 synthesis process in our "What the If" world. It's quite obvious that agriculture would have been very different. Our World in Data has the key answer here: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/world-population-with-and-without-fertilizer — without ammonia as fertilizer we would be able to feed max 4 bn people (instead 8). So many more famines? Or slower population growth? Certainly a different diet, less feed for animals, and more plants that can fixate N2 from the atmosphere. Our World in Data has a little fun with that: (https://ourworldindata.org/how-many-people-does-synthetic-fertilizer-feed#could-we-have-achieved-the-same-without-synthetic-nitrogen) more peas and beans (and some others — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Nitrogen-fixing_crops — including lupines — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupinus#Uses — which leads -of course- directly to one of my favorite Monty Python sketches "Dennis Moore"). Not nice. I wouldn't survive the season, that's for sure (no / less fruits and other vegetables) Side note: I was surprised that per capita for many decades (https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/fertilizer-per-capita?tab=chart&country=OWID_WRL~OWID_EUR~CHN~IND~EGY~NLD~DEU~USA) the Western world had significantly higher values than Africa, India, Egypt. So without NH3 Europe / USA would have suffered more), probably more focus has to be put on bringing food on the table for everyone and less activities in new technologies etc. (basically staying longer at the bottom levels of Maslow's pyramid of needs) And then there is war. NH3 was an important ingredient to make TNT - some folks estimate that TNT has killed 100-150 million people in all wars combined. TNT Is Still With Us | Science | AAAS https://www.science.org/content/blog-post/tnt-still-us
Despite being an older explosive, TNT remains relevant due to its stability and relative safety compared to newer, more volatile alternatives. All the best, Martin ... Read more

07 Jun 2024

54 MINS

54:16

07 Jun 2024


#353

Weird Fish Dating!

Dive into the bizarre world of anglerfish mating rituals in this wildly entertaining episode! Discover how these deep-sea creatures evolved an unconventional strategy for reproduction in the ocean's dark depths. From males biting and fusing to much larger females, to becoming nothing more than sperm-producing parasites, the strange tale of anglerfish love will leave you amazed and slightly unsettled. Join us as we imagine a human society built on anglerfish rules - where tiny men chase after gigantic women in hopes of clamping on for life. It's a thought-provoking journey filled with humor and scientific intrigue that you won't want to miss! Read the New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2024/05/30/science/anglerfish-evolution-sex.html?pvid=kolzEZ0s23v76fE8YxZOhk03&u2g=c&smid=url-share --- Find out more about Gaby's science fiction short story! Here are the links for the anthology. The physical copy can be ordered here : https://www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention The ebook can be ordered here: https://www.neonhemlock.com/ebooks/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention ... Read more

31 May 2024

51 MINS

51:36

31 May 2024


#352

YOU Are Schrödinger's CAT!

Explore what it means to live as Schrödinger's Cat! Delve into the mind-bending concept of being in two states at once and how it would feel to experience quantum superposition. Discover modern AI’s take on this classic thought experiment, laugh over a dance floor encounter with Mick Jagger, and hear fascinating tales from history, including an atomic bomb project. This episode is packed with intriguing theories and humorous elements, making the quantum world more relatable. Perfect for both science enthusiasts and curious minds, this journey will challenge your perception of existence! ... Read more

24 May 2024

50 MINS

50:53

24 May 2024


#351

Space Vacuum MONSTERS!

Today's cover art, crafted by listener Josh Haberman, features heavy metal merpeople in whalebone armor inspired by Gaby's vision in our "Underwater Civilizations" episode. Explore more of Josh's work at his blog: https://artofjoshhaberman.blogspot.com and share your own inspired creations! We're sharing "Space Vacuum MONSTERS!" as an encore presentation while Team IF is away from the studio. This episode delves into cosmic wilderness, exploring space vacuum monsters and metaphoric Kaiju that inhabit the remote corners of the universe. Inspired by one of Gaby's imaginative short stories, "A Sword Between The Stars," it originally aired a while back. Today, we celebrate Gaby, not only for her creative contributions but also for her recent achievement in earning her PhD from Rockefeller University. Congratulations, Gaby, on this wonderful accomplishment! Gaby's short story "A Sword Between The Stars" is featured in the anthology "Luminescent Machinations: Queer Tales of Monumental Invention," available at Neon Hemlock: https://www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention. --- Check out our membership rewards! Visit us at https://Patreon.com/Whattheif Got an IF of your own? Want to have us consider your idea for a show topic? Send YOUR IF to us! Email us at feedback@whattheif.com and let us know what's in your imagination. No idea is too small, or too big! Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe at https://WhatTheIF.com Keep On IFFin', Philip, Matt & Gaby ... Read more

17 May 2024

54 MINS

54:42

17 May 2024


#350

Meet The Star Trek COMPUTER!

Matt & Gaby are away on assignment! So I'm alone here in the studio, presenting you with an encore presentation of my conversation with the Star Trek computer which aired last year and became one of our most popular episodes ever. Enjoy! -- Philip ---- 🚀 Blast off to the 23rd Century in this hilarious and thought-provoking episode of "What The IF?" Join your host, Philip, as he chats with an unexpected guest straight from the Starship Enterprise: the ship's Computer herself! 💻 Take a deep dive into the quirky world of Star Trek and unravel the enigmatic personality behind the Enterprise's AI. Learn about her mysterious origin story - a puzzle as complex as a quantum calculation wrapped up in a futuristic alloy casing. This isn't your typical chatbot; even in her unofficial vacation mode, she serves up her responses with a side of humor that will have you laughing in your space boots. Discover fascinating trivia about the series, from the groundbreaking decision to give the computer a female voice, to the talented Majel Barrett-Roddenberry who provided her voice from 1966 to 2023. Uncover how her portrayal of the computer voice evolved over time and how Star Trek's progressive vision led to the inclusion of more personalized AI characters like "Data" and "The Doctor." So strap in, prepare for warp speed, and join this exciting journey across the Star Trek universe. This episode is set to stun! Don't miss it. 🌟 --- Find out more about Gaby's upcoming science fiction short story publication, coming soon! Here are the links for the anthology. The physical copy can be pre-ordered here : www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminesce…ental-invention The ebook can be pre-ordered here: www.neonhemlock.com/ebooks/luminesc…ental-invention --- Check out our membership rewards! Visit us at Patreon.com/Whattheif Got an IF of your own? Want to have us consider your idea for a show topic? Send YOUR IF to us! Email us at feedback@whattheif.com and let us know what's in your imagination. No idea is too small, or too big! Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe at WhatTheIF.com Keep On IFFin', Philip, Matt & Gaby ... Read more

10 May 2024

1 HR 19 MINS

1:19:32

10 May 2024


#349

FATE or Physics?

Do we truly have free will or are our choices predetermined by the particles that make up our universe? This mind-bending episode dives into the age-old debate of free will vs determinism. Explore the fascinating implications of a world without free will - from everyday social interactions to moral responsibility. Discover how the laws of physics might turn us into mere "billiard balls" with our paths set in motion since the Big Bang. But is there a glimmer of hope in the randomness of quantum mechanics? Join the thought-provoking discussion and decide for yourself - if you have a choice, that is! ... Read more

03 May 2024

44 MINS

44:35

03 May 2024


#348

ICE Insanity!

Team IF is OFF this week, we're celebrating Gaby becoming DR. GABY with the completion of her PhD at Rockefeller University!!! We're super proud of her. So this week we present this encore presentation of one of our most popular episodes, enjoy, and keep those emails coming! WhatTheIF.com/contact -- and send your congratulations to Gaby! --- We salute our newest Patreon members. Thank you: Connie, Martin, and Dan! Welcome to an icy exploration of reality on this episode of "What The IF?" Dive headfirst into a brain-freezing alternate universe, as Philip, Freya, Gabby, and Matt grapple with an extraordinary question, submitted by our Super Iffer listener, Martin from Frankfurt: What the if... water did not have its highest density at plus four degrees Celsius? The team embarks on an adventure that treads the fine line between physics and biology, unwrapping the counter-intuitive conundrums and startling possibilities that lie ahead. In this bewildering world, ice doesn't float and frozen lakes become deadly traps for aquatic life. Discover how this slight shift in water's properties could send catastrophic ripples through ecosystems, extinguishing fish populations and upsetting the balance of life. The conversation spans from the microscopic intricacies of water molecules and the life-saving 'anti-freeze' proteins in fish, all the way to the grand scale of planetary bodies. The team also makes a cosmic detour to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, reputed to hold more water than Earth, highlighting the universal significance of water's unique properties. Could life exist in a world where water behaves differently? Listen in, as the team freezes the status quo and takes you on a fascinating journey through the ice-cold unknown. --- Listen to Gaby's guest appearance on the “Students of Life” podcast: studentsoflife.podbean.com/e/science-c…on-writing/ Find out more about Gaby's upcoming science fiction short story publication, coming soon! Here are the links for the anthology. The physical copy can be pre-ordered here : www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminesce…ental-invention The ebook can be pre-ordered here: www.neonhemlock.com/ebooks/luminesc…ental-invention ... Read more

26 Apr 2024

53 MINS

53:34

26 Apr 2024


#347

SCREAMING For LOVE!

This week on "What The IF?" Philip and Gaby tackle the uproarious tale of a fish so small it could masquerade as a grain of rice, yet so loud it puts rock concerts to shame! In the streams of Myanmar, this tiny troubadour belts out love ballads louder than a jackhammer to woo its mate. The episode dives into the science behind why this minuscule creature needs to be heard, not just seen. Join us for a soundcheck in nature's own concert hall, where volume is the key to romance and survival. Get ready to turn up the volume and tune in to one of nature's smallest but mightiest vocalists. Inspired by the reporting of Elizabeth Anne Brown in the Scientific American article, “This Tiny Fish Makes an Ear-Blasting Screech for Love” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/this-tiny-fish-makes-an-ear-blasting-screech-for-love/ --- Find out more about Gaby's science fiction short story! Here are the links for the anthology. The physical copy can be ordered here : https://www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention The ebook can be ordered here: https://www.neonhemlock.com/ebooks/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention ... Read more

19 Apr 2024

51 MINS

51:04

19 Apr 2024


#346

The LIBRARY of INFINITY!

Dive into the mysteries of the "Infinite Library" in this enthralling episode! Join our adventurers as they explore a hypothetical library filled with an infinite number of books, where every conceivable thought and theory is penned down. Discover the humorous possibilities of encountering books written by alternate versions of yourself, or even navigating a library so vast you might need a thread to find your way back. From theoretical skeletons holding coveted books to the amusing pitfalls of infinite knowledge, this episode offers a whimsical journey through a limitless repository of human—and possibly non-human—wisdom. --- Find out more about Gaby's science fiction short story! Here are the links for the anthology. The physical copy can be ordered here : https://www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention The ebook can be ordered here: https://www.neonhemlock.com/ebooks/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention ... Read more

12 Apr 2024

56 MINS

56:51

12 Apr 2024


#345

ECLIPSE For Cavemen!

Embark on a mind-bending thought experiment as our intrepid explorers dive deep into the annals of history, imagining how early humans might have unraveled the mysteries of solar eclipses. From cave paintings to mythical tales of celestial dragons, join the journey as Throg and his tribe attempt to make sense of the sun's sudden disappearance. Join us as we ponder the birth of astronomy and the evolution of scientific thinking. --- Find out more about Gaby's science fiction short story! Here are the links for the anthology. The physical copy can be ordered here : https://www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention The ebook can be ordered here: https://www.neonhemlock.com/ebooks/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention ... Read more

05 Apr 2024

53 MINS

53:28

05 Apr 2024


#344

READ No More!

Dive into an electrifying journey where the unthinkable becomes reality – a world without the power to read! In this episode, inspired by a brilliant thought experiment from Lars in Sweden, we plunge into a universe where humanity wakes up to find all written language undecipherable. Imagine your phone, books, and even street signs turning into incomprehensible symbols overnight. How would this sudden shift affect our daily lives, technologies, and the very fabric of society? From exploring the immediate chaos to the long-term adaptations, such as a resurgence of the oral tradition and the pivotal role of video as our new primary knowledge repository, we unravel the consequences of this global phenomenon. It's a compelling blend of speculation and science that will fascinate anyone intrigued by the foundations of communication and the resilience of human ingenuity in the face of unprecedented challenges. Tune in and ponder, what if the human race could suddenly no longer read? --- Find out more about Gaby's science fiction short story! Here are the links for the anthology. The physical copy can be ordered here : https://www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention The ebook can be ordered here: https://www.neonhemlock.com/ebooks/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention ... Read more

29 Mar 2024

41 MINS

41:58

29 Mar 2024


#343

MUSIC In SPACE - With Chris Carberry of EXPLORE MARS!

Our special guest Chris Carberry of EXPLORE MARS, author of the new book THE MUSIC OF SPACE joins us! We imagine a civilization on a distant, cloud-covered planet called Seattle Nine. Their only glimpse into the universe beyond comes from intercepting old Earth movies and TV shows, which they believe to be real documentaries about space. As they piece together the evolution of space travel through the music in these films, a fascinating picture emerges. From the Wagnerian scores of early sci-fi to the brassy themes of Star Wars, they conclude that each alien species has its own musical soundtrack, that space itself changes sound over time, and that music may even be the key to communicating with extraterrestrial life. Join us on a humorous journey into the music of space exploration, as seen through the eyes of our fictional cosmic neighbors. Learn more about Chris’ book, THE MUSIC OF SPACE on Amazon https://a.co/d/31F8gEP Barnes & Noble https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-music-of-space-chris-carberry/1143391721 and wherever you get your books! Learn more about EXPLORE MARS’ incredible annual conference, The HUMANS TO MARS SUMMIT at https://www.ExploreMars.org. Sign up now for the upcoming event, May 7-8, 2024 in Washington D.C. --- Find out more about Gaby's science fiction short story! Here are the links for the anthology. The physical copy can be ordered here : https://www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention The ebook can be ordered here: https://www.neonhemlock.com/ebooks/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention ... Read more

23 Mar 2024

47 MINS

47:57

23 Mar 2024


#342

ANCIENT Libraries!

Intriguing documents lost to history could be recovered with futuristic technology, offering insights into ancient civilizations and solving long-standing historical mysteries. From the burnt scrolls of Herculaneum and missing books of the Iliad, to the construction plans of the Egyptian pyramids and the mechanical wonders of the Antikythera mechanism, a magical book-reading device could unveil the secrets of the past. Even the recovery of early Christian gospels or the original intentions behind the U.S. Constitution could shake up our understanding of religion and law. Join this captivating exploration into how lost knowledge might be regained. --- Find out more about Gaby's science fiction short story! Here are the links for the anthology. The physical copy can be ordered here : https://www.neonhemlock.com/books/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention The ebook can be ordered here: https://www.neonhemlock.com/ebooks/luminescent-machinations-queer-tales-of-monumental-invention ... Read more

15 Mar 2024

50 MINS

50:03

15 Mar 2024


#341

EATING Like Pandas!

In a bizarre thought experiment ripped from a headline in Scientific American, we explore a world where humans have developed a genetic mutation similar to some Labrador retrievers that causes constant hunger. This leads us down a hilarious path of imagining cities with celery slurry piped to every home, space missions needing to carry vast tanks of liquified celery, and foosball becoming the new national pastime in a low-energy society. Join us as we follow this delightfully absurd scenario to its conclusion and have some laughs about our least favorite vegetable. ... Read more

08 Mar 2024

47 MINS

47:57

08 Mar 2024