1206: Einstein

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Einstein was WRONG when he said that provisional patent #39561 represented a novel gravel-sorting technique and should be approved by the Patent Office.
Title text: Einstein was WRONG when he said that provisional patent #39561 represented a novel gravel-sorting technique and should be approved by the Patent Office.

[edit] Explanation

Nobel laureate and Time Person of the Century Albert Einstein is often considered one of the smartest and most influential men in world history. His theories revolutionized our understanding of the Universe and inspired generations of scientists. In this comic, Cueball indicates to a friend that he is working on an experiment that may disprove Einstein. The implication is that Cueball is conducting a formal scientific experiment which may disprove one of Einstein's scientific theories. The second frame, however, implies that the Einsteinian "theory" Cueball's experiment may disprove is an offhand (and subjective) remark by Einstein about the availability of good sandwiches.

There are several possible interpretations/explanations for this comic, which is slightly vague:

  • The first possibility is that Randall is playing with the notion that everything Einstein said constitutes words to live by: A casual observation on the quality of sandwiches is treated as a major hypothesis, and Cueball is in fact conducting a formal scientific experiment which may "disprove" the statement.
This would not be the first time that xkcd has addressed people taking scientists too seriously. In 947: Investing, Randall comments on how people put too much credence in a joke Einstein made in passing, and in comic 799 we see Stephen Hawking in a similar predicament, every word he says taken as a major declaration.
A key part of the humour is that a significant number of people believe Einstein's physical theories (particularly Special and General Relativity) to be wrong: its universal promotion in scientific literature is ascribed to a conspiracy. This attitude has been lampooned before in xkcd comic 808 and comic 675.
  • The second possibility is that Cueball is simply trying to impress his friend by using "technically accurate" language to imply that he is involved in important scientific work, when all he is really doing is buying sandwiches and hoping to find a good one. (Perhaps he's a scientist out to lunch with an old friend who's never respected his work, and knows that anything Einstein-related sounds impressive and foreboding, meaning his friend is unlikely to ask for details.)
  • Another explanation might be simply that while scientists today are so focused on determining whether he was right, all he really cared about was finding a good sandwich shop.

The title text demonstrates the ability to "disprove" Einstein while not challenging his scientific work but rather one of his decisions in his capacity as a patent clerk at the Swiss Patent Office at the time he published his first major papers (previously alluded to in 1067: Pressures). According to the Einstein FAQ on the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property's website, patent #39561 is one of several patents that "we can assume ... were personally examined by Einstein". A PDF of the patent, which was indeed a gravel sorter (trommel), can be found here (in German).

Another part of the joke involves tenses: when Cueball says "I'm currently conducting an experiment," his friend assumes that Cueball is involved in an ongoing research project; but he actually means that he is conducting an experiment at that very moment, by eating a sandwich.

[edit] Transcript

[Cueball and friend eating at a table.]
Cueball: I'm currently conducting an experiment which may prove Einstein wrong!
Friend: Ooh, exciting!
[Einstein and Cueball walking.]
Einstein: It's impossible to find a good sandwich in this town.
Comment.png add a comment!


I think left Cueball was just trolling. 05:00, 1 May 2013 (UTC)

"Disproving Einstein" is usually thought to be disproving special or general relativity theory -- 05:46, 1 May 2013 (UTC)

I am pretty sure the joke is that disproving anything Einstein said is "disproving Einstein". 09:04, 1 May 2013 (UTC)
Wasn't the "disproving special or general relativity theory" already sort of done with quantum physics? Or do we only suspect that but lack the actual proof until we have confirmed Quantum gravity? -- Hkmaly (talk) 10:34, 1 May 2013 (UTC)
In physics an experimentally likely theory is disproved by making an experiment that gives different results than the theory predicts. As none of the theories of relativity say anything about the statistical properties of electrons and photons, quantum experiments do not really disprove relativity. If you could measure gravitation on atomic scales you might, but there are no guarantees, as it might behave as relativity predicts, which would mean that some part of quantum field theory is either wrong, or not yet discovered (interestingly nine fold SUSY with local invariance might still reproduce general relativity at large scales, the theorists are still calculating). Generally, one wants to modify quantum theory, and keep relativity as it is (in a way what string theory does) and not the other way around. 08:16, 1 September 2013 (UTC)

Is it just me or did Cueball travel back in time to 1947? That would certainly be a bigger way to disprove Einstein than to go after his opinion of sandwich shoppes. -- Sturmovik

{{Like}}<!-- someone should import that template --> PinkAmpersand (talk) 19:58, 1 May 2013 (UTC)
LOL, wrong patent
Moved from Talk:Main Page -- Mark Hurd (talk) 04:30, 2 May 2013 (UTC)

I googled patent number 39561 and got this, which is a patent for carriage wheels, not a gravel sorter. I'm like, "You bet Einstein was wrong if he called that a gravel sorter!" Then I realized that he wasn't a patent clerk in the US patent office, but rather the Swiss. -- 03:23, 2 May 2013 (UTC)

I googled "patent 39561 gravel sorter". Screenshot. Notice that first 9 links are about this comic xD --DiEvAl (talk) 22:24, 2 May 2013 (UTC)
The Swiss Patent Office has a FAQ page, which also includes a link to Patent 39561 Gravel Sorter Full FAQ: Swiss Patent Office--Philster (talk) 12:10, 3 May 2013 (UTC)

Has terminology changed since Einstein was an examiner. Provisional patents are not reviewed for patentability (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I think part of the joke is that by "I am currently...", Cueball is describing what he is doing right now in the diner, i.e. eating a sandwich. 11:23, 3 May 2013 (UTC)
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