1637: Salt Mine

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Salt Mine
This one is a little bland. Pass the saltshaker?
Title text: This one is a little bland. Pass the saltshaker?


Ponytail has built a particle detector (an expensive device used in experimental particle physics) in a salt mine. Hairbun assumes that this is to block out cosmic rays, as is the case with the real life Irvine-Michigan-Brookhaven (IMB) detector, started in Lake Erie in 1979, or the Enriched Xenon Observatory (EXO), placed in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) salt mine in 2007.

The IMB detector was initially used to search for proton decay in very pure water kept in the mine, and it was thus important to keep out cosmic rays that would create the same type of signal as a decaying proton. Although the IMB became famous for detecting neutrinos from supernova 1987a (which pass through virtually all materials, salt or lead etc. with only the smallest fraction of them interacting), it never observed a single proton decay out of the 1031 protons present in the water of the detector. If it had detected even a single positive observation it would have contributed to the ratification of the Grand Unified Theory, which predicts that protons eventually decay. At the time of this comic the lower limit for proton half-life from experimental evidence is of the order 1034 years.

Ponytail affirms Hairbun's assumption; however, based on the wording of her response, it is clear that Ponytail and her colleagues, Cueball and Megan, have an ulterior motive of using the mine to get access to an enormous supply of salt for eating. This is absurd, since salt is already plentifully available in grocery stores, the cost of the particle detector far exceeds the value of the salt and their intake appears to be far beyond any medically-advised healthy limit (and likely to be sickening in other regards).

In the comic, when Ponytail says "Yes. That is definitely why," it is obvious that when queried about the reason for building the detector, apparently to gain access to large quantities of salt, Ponytail is quick to leap on Hairbun's more scientific-sounding explanation, in an attempt to save face and appear professional.

The title text is intended to be absurd. Salt is normally used to add flavor to otherwise bland foods. However, the "bland" food that the speaker is eating is itself a chunk of salt, and they wish to season their salt with yet more salt. Additionally, the title text's wording is a bit ambiguous; "this one" could refer to the comic itself, and Randall is calling the comic bland. And, in keeping with the subject, is asking for salt to spruce it up, or it could refer to the detector planted inside the mine.

This was the first of two comics this week that concerns one of the basic condiments for food, and also regards one of the five basic tastes. The second, about sugar, was 1639: To Taste. Lately Randall has made several food related comics.

Ponytail's response is very similar to Luke's in 1397: Luke.


[Hairbun (with glasses), Ponytail, Megan and Cueball are in a salt mine. Hairbun and Ponytail talk in front of what appears to be a control console for a particle detector with a chair on each side. To the right Megan and Cueball are eating salt in large amounts straight of the rocks in the mine. They are eating so fast that salt spills from their hands and falls to the ground.]
Hairbun: So you've built this particle detector in a salt mine to block out cosmic rays?
Ponytail: Yes.
Ponytail: That is definitely why.
Cueball and Megan: Homf nomf nomf

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I don't think that the exotic restaurants relate, here. As well, I think that Ponytail says "Yes, that is definitely why" because she is saying "Yes, we definitely built the detector here to block out cosmic rays, and definitely *not* to eat the delicious salt." You know what I mean? Thoughts? 06:46, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

I agree. The comment about restaurants only adds to the potential confusion around the comic. 08:05, 1 February 2016 (UTC)BK201
I have removed it. 00:45, 2 February 2016 (UTC)
Ponytail appears to be snarkily hiding the trivial reason she built it there: so she can say "off to the salt mines", a phrase indicating you (probably) hate your job, which is hard, grossly unrewarding and repetitive. As "slave labor", it's exactly who was often sent to the mines. Sifting through massive amounts of mostly unfruitful data would probably feel like working a salt mine, though sequestering funds to achieve this historical accuracy might be frowned upon. Another idea from the munching sounds at What If:Lunar Swimming : The first image explains going to the moon "because it is hard", and the audience offers that eating a bag of pinecones is also hard. Its title text reads that the Soviets are already a third of the way through their bag...and then reads "(grabs bag) Homf Nomf Homf...". If Ponytail's mine were on the moon and the "salt" were Helium3 (essential for neutron detection and energy) then the Russians (and Chinese) are trying and perhaps there's a new space race in the making. Finally for the munchers, slave/prison labor is intentionally an experientially bland experience, but salt might enhance your day. Though I'd hate to think they're mining by eating the tunnels, perhaps "shaking" the salt would provide another taste enhancement like drinking Tomato Juice on a Plane (airplane vibration enhances umami perception). And...having seen the horsepower reference (to the moon) in the What-If and realizing we give workhorses salt chunks, I'm off to read about too much context. Elvenivle (talk) 05:08, 9 February 2016 (UTC)
On Ponytail's motivation...water appears to be one of the most effective radiation shields; not much of that here. But in the old days, fraudsters would "salt" a dead mine with a little valuable ore and sell the worthless hole in the ground. Ponytail appears to have salted a dessicated salt mine with a detector just for the sake of amusement. Elvenivle (talk) 06:10, 9 February 2016 (UTC)

The science facility in a salt mine made me think of Portal 2. Now i'm wondering if the IMB served as an inspiration for Portal 2. 08:36, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

"The title text is intended to be absurd, and thus humorous." GLaDOS, is that you? (I can't help. As I read this sentence I imagined it spoken by GLaDOS...) Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 08:49, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

Could the salt eating be a reference to TOS: The Man Trap? (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Yes, definitely. I came here looking for the name is the episode; it really does seem like the scientists are (or are under the control of) salt-eating creatures masquerading as mere scientists. In fact, the hover text corroborates with that interpretation: "this one" could be a particle - "this particle is a little bland. Pass the saltshaker?" - a creature that eats this much salt could also eat cosmic rays... ~~ (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Maybe "salt" should taste somewhat appropriate about flavor of subatomic particles and randomness (cryptography) too. Rotten Brain 14:35, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

Even assuming that's 'low grade' rock-salt, mostly inert rock, the intake would probably exceed the regulatory advice (6g/day over here, I think, but I'd have to look it up to be sure - and that's mostly used up/exceeded with the hidden salt in prepared meals!). I think that's because of the danger of the sodium excess (hence sodium-free salts, sometimes called "salt-free salt" as it has a different formula to NaCl, sold as being a healthier option). But raw salt ingestion like this would (assuming it doesn't already overload the tastebuds, perhaps because of an extremely over-riding craving?) likely also create problems of extreme and active dehydration... i.e. like being mummified from the inside-out.

I do know that there are cravings for minerals (coal, clays, chalk, etc), which can be life-long habits without too many apparent ill effects (perhaps tooth-wearing, primarily) - if not just a strange reaction to pregnancy. If anyone knows of a similarly extreme salt-craving, though, it would probably be worth linking it in so I'm not left thinking that it's a typical "taken to extremes" XKCD comic. 16:42, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

The lines about salt at the end of the explanation ("This explanation should be taken with a grain of salt. This comic should be taken with a grain of salt. Salt.") are the best part, not only of the explainer page but of this comic. The only time I laughed, and I laughed aloud. 17:40, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

When I was a child, I would sneak rock salt crystals from the bags used for the water softener and eat them. They tasted *really* good. To me, this comic is calling out that childish desire to eat rock salt, because boy is it tasty. Nothing more. 18:31, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

I am still very confused by this strip. Why was it necessary to build a particle detector to gain access to the delicious salt? And why does the first speaker assume it was to 'block' cosmic rays? The current explanation says "as is the case with the real life IMB", but surely particle detectors do not block cosmic rays, they detect them. 20:03, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

The IMB was not build to look for cosmic rays, but for local proton decay. The cosmic rays would be a disturbance and was wished to be avoided. I have tried to make it clearer in the explanation. --Kynde (talk) 20:49, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

The Cow Tools of xkcd? - 20:33, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

I like the comment J-beda made when changing what I wrote about neutrinos:

"Neutrinos do not pass through EVERYTHING otherwise they could not be detected."

True they can be stopped individually, but hey it takes about a light year of lead to get the chance of a neutrino being stopped up to 50%... So I would say yes they pass through everything, but once in a blue moon one of them may be stopped (and detected if hitting one of our few detectors that can detect neutrinos). It was 8 neutrinos detected out of the roughly 1058 neutrinos emitted by the supernova... Or as Randall wrote in his What if Lethal Neutrinos:

Neutrinos are ghostly particles that barely interact with the world at all. Look at your hand—there are about a trillion neutrinos from the Sun passing through it every second. [Night and day since the Earth rarely stops any of them].

In the first foot note [1] he also writes:

Statistically, my first neutrino interaction probably happened somewhere around age 10. [By that time 315,360,000,000,000,000,000,000 neutrinos would have passed through his hand, I guess multiplying with the number of hands areas of your body will not really matter...] :-)

So true there will be some neutrinos that react making my statement that they pass through everything completely wrong :-p --Kynde (talk) 22:12, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

Is it only me who thinks that they are seasoning the exotic particles from the reactor with the salt, then eating them? 10:31, 2 February 2016 (UTC)

I have a small theory explaining why Cueball and Megan are eating salt. This comics remind me of an old The Outer Limits episode: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/From_Within_(The_Outer_Limits) . Basically its plot is quite similar to The Invasion of The Body Snatchers except the aliens are eating salt. This explanation is not very probable since this is a very specific episode of an old and not very popular anymore serie, but I thought it could be useful to mention it. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

There is also one salt-eating creature in Star Trek, aired 30 years earlier: [1] ... already mentioned in comments ... -- Hkmaly (talk) 13:50, 3 February 2016 (UTC)

The comic title "Salt Mine" can also be taken as a command, as in "please apply seasoning to the one that belongs to me." I suspect that the title text is referencing this play on words. 15:32, 3 February 2016 (UTC)

Rock Salt is not a "mixture of rock and salt" as mentioned above. Its simply plain old salt in a compressed crystalline form that just happens to looks like rocks. On average its not any less salty that sea-salt. So the part about some salt having more rock content and hence being bland doesn't ring true. 11:19, 4 February 2016 (UTC)GG

I vaguely recall a movie (probably '80s or early '90s) about some salt mine workers whose tunnel unexpectedly broke into an underground room complete with a carcass of a dinosaur (or was it a mammoth). The workers and later the whole population (minus the hero and sidekick) of the mining town were taken over by maggot-like parasites that had been the end of the unfortunate dinosaur (mammoth?) and had survived on salt (hence the underground room). Maybe the comic is about that movie. 16:31, 5 February 2016 (UTC)

Could the title (Salt Mine) also be a bit of a play on words, as in "this salt is mine"? KDLadage (talk) 16:46, 5 February 2016 (UTC)

So...this one is just not funny at all and has no meaning whatsoever? -- (also that's not my IP at all, weird) 03:10, 24 February 2016 (UTC)

I'm not sure how to flag this one. Or where to begin on a repair. 18:28, 4 May 2022 (UTC)