2633: Astronomer Hotline

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Astronomer Hotline
Employment statistics have to correct for the fact that the Weird Bug Hotline hires a bunch of extra temporary staff every 17 years.
Title text: Employment statistics have to correct for the fact that the Weird Bug Hotline hires a bunch of extra temporary staff every 17 years.


This comic is a joke about helplines, and the experience of the skilled people staffing them, who often have to deal with callers with a much lower understanding of the subject, seeking assistance with things that may seem very basic from the point of view of the technician, or where they have completely misunderstood the nature of the issue.

The comic starts with someone having called the "Astronomer hotline", hence the title. Judging by the way the helpline employee, Cueball, starts the call, by asking for a description of the weird lights, it is implied that this is the main/only purpose of the helpline, or is, in practice, the subject of most of the calls they receive.

The caller is in panic, and doesn't know how to describe the light. Cueball is used to this and asks the caller to stay calm, then starts to go through his checklist, asking them if it is daytime, because if it were, he might assume they have just noticed the Sun. Most people are familiar with the Sun[citation needed] and would not need help in identifying it, although people have also mistaken the Moon for a 'mysterious light in the sky' at times. Asking this could thus seem very condescending, but it is like when the employee at a tech support hot-line asks if the computer is turned on, or if the caller tried to restart the computer, see 806: Tech Support. It may also refer to the most immediate danger, as looking directly at the sun is a bad idea.

The caller is not affronted, but tells Cueball that the Sun has set. When asked if the lights are stationary, which stars would normally appear to be, the reply is that they are zipping around in the bushes.

At this point Cueball realizes that the caller has just seen fireflies, a family of insects commonly seen in temperate/tropical climates during the summer. He describes them for the caller as "lightning bugs" (another common epithet for these insects), "tree blinkers", or "ground stars" (unusual terms invented for this comic that seem to illustrate the Astronomer Hotline's unfamiliarity with fireflies); and says that these are not a problem, much to the caller's relief.[1] Those last two descriptions, especially "ground stars", are reminiscent of the "fool's stars" mentioned in 2017: Stargazing 2.

However, Cueball must admit that astronomers do not know much about fireflies, since they are too fast for the astronomers' telescopes. This refers to the problem of object tracking in astronomy. Sufficient observations must be taken to reliably predict the future path of an object, and thereby to be able to reorient the observing equipment to track its progress across the sky and make further observations. While the relative velocity of fireflies would be much lower than that of most astronomical bodies, their movement across the field of view tends to appear much quicker, being unusually close to the observer. This, combined with their erratic, unpredictable paths, would make them very difficult to track through a telescope.

Since Cueball cannot help further, he transfers the caller to the "Weird Bug Hotline", in a process that is apparently somewhat routine – enough to have the correct line somehow preprogrammed into his call-handling system. This is clearly not the first 'astronomy' query that actually concerns fireflies. This is similar to the process that might happen when a helpline caller's query cannot be handled by first line support and has to be passed on to a more specialized second line operator, or where the call has been routed to the wrong specialist to start with, perhaps because the user, lacking knowledge about the issue, selected the wrong option from an automated routing system.

Before the call ends, at Cueball's end, he hears the opening question from the other hotline ("Is it currently biting you?") as the new support tech again goes directly to the most common/important query, whether there is any immediate danger to be resolved... It is possible that Cueball will actually be speaking to the Weird Bugs line initially, quickly priming the Weird Bug call-handler with the salient facts already established before fully handing over the call. This could get the original caller straight into the correct conversation if the onward line's handler is sufficiently competent and experienced in such a transfer.

Some people (often UFO enthusiasts) tend to get a little over-excited about calling every light in the sky they don't expect a UFO. This comic takes this to the extreme, where someone calls a helpline because they saw fireflies, and thought they were UFOs. While UFOs are not mentioned by name, they are heavily implied. Technically, such a person would be correct, so long as the lights are actually unidentified, flying and caused by a physical object, but if the expectation is that it is an extraterrestrial spacecraft then the truth (if discovered and also accepted) can be disappointing to some people, rather than lead to an interesting alternative avenue of appreciation of whatever phenomenon it truly is.

The title text is a reference to bugs that have gaps of several years between emerging from their larval state. Most famous are the periodical cicadas, 13- and 17-year cicadas, that only emerge every 13 or 17 years depending on species. The 17 years in the title text thus refers to the 17-year cicadas. Every 17 years the bug hotline hires a bunch of temporary staff, either because there will be more callers due to the unexpected new bug no one has seen for 17 years, or it could be because they just like to emulate nature and thus do this every 17 years. Or alternately, the 17-year cicadas may just like to gather inside a trench coat and apply for jobs answering calls about weird bugs. The largest 17-year cicada appearance in the USA is called Brood X which last occurred in 2021 and before that 2004. There are smaller broods in other years, but the majority come out with 17 years interval, and the next is expected in 2038. The joke in the title text is that the employment statistics for the weird hotline have to correct for this fact, a reference to the decennial United States census, which involves so many people as to affect aggregate employment statistics. Periodical cicadas have been mentioned before in 2263: Cicadas (see details about them in that comic's trivia section).


[Cueball, with a headset on, is sitting in an office chair at a desk in front of his computer screen, hands on the keyboard. He receives a call, and the caller's voice is shown in a jagged frame above Cueball, between his two lines of text.]
Cueball: Hello, Emergency Astronomer Hotline. How would you describe the lights?
Caller on phone: I don't know! Help!
Cueball: Stay calm. Is it day? If so, that's the Sun.
[Cueball is now seen en face with the headset, but the computer etc. is not shown. The caller's voice is now written normally but with zigzag lines going to the text from Cueball's headphone. Cueball's reply has a normal line going up to it.]
Caller on phone: No, the Sun set and then the light appeared!
Cueball: Hmm, could be stars. Are they stationary?
Caller on phone: No, they're all zipping around bushes.
[In a frameless panel, the setting returns to the one from the first panel, with the caller's voice in jagged frames again.]
Cueball: Aha! Fireflies!
Caller on phone: "Fireflies"?
Cueball: Lightning bugs. Tree blinkers. Ground stars.
Cueball: They're fine.
Caller on phone: Phew!
[Same setting as first panel, but broader panel. After Cueball's reply and a short reply from the caller as in the first panel, there is a sound indicating transfer to another hotline. Then to the right there is a square panel with jagged edge, with the voice from the other hotline's employee.]
Cueball: We don't know much about them as they're too fast for our telescopes, but I can transfer you to the Weird Bug Hotline.
Caller on phone: Sure, thanks.
Transfer of call. *Click*
Weird Bug Hotline on phone: Hi, Weird Bug Hotline. Is it currently biting you?


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Someone really needs to check on the bot. This is the second day in a row where I have had to begin the article! SqueakSquawk4 (talk) 13:06, 15 June 2022 (UTC)

The fact that this is the Astronomer Helpline seems like commentary on the frequency with which astronomers are asked about mysterious objects, and/or the fact that astronomers (who tend to spend a lot of time looking at the sky) rarely report seeing unidentified objects. It could also be noted that calling fireflies a UFO would technically be accurate, as they are objects which are flying that the observers apparently could not readily identify. 13:36, 15 June 2022 (UTC)

There is about 2000 species of fireflies. OF COURSE I can't identify which one it is, considering it's so dark I only see the light. -- Hkmaly (talk) 18:22, 15 June 2022 (UTC)

Title text probably referes to Periodical cicadas that appears every 17 years. 13:58, 15 June 2022 (UTC)

As someone from a country without fireflies, is "Ground Stars" a normal word for fireflies or a joke? (similar to how planets are "wandering stars", so to an astronomer everything is a star, similar to 2017: Stargazing 2) Sqek (talk) 14:17, 15 June 2022 (UTC)

A joke. 14:54, 15 June 2022 (UTC)

The second last paragraph is extremely confusing. Someone should fix it. 15:17, 15 June 2022 (UTC)

I have removed the paragraph referenced in the above comment; it was confusing, and seemed focused on explaining the reasons for cicadas having prime-numbered year cycles. While this is interesting, it is not relevant to understanding any of the jokes, especially since two helpful links to periodical cicadas and Brood X were already included earlier in the article. Parties interested in learning cicada facts may follow those links; to explain the joke, it is enough to acknowledge that periodical cicadas are a thing, not explore the ecology or evolution of such a trait. If I overstepped, feel free to reinstate with a clearer explanation. Dextrous Fred (talk) 16:16, 15 June 2022 (UTC)

Does anyone else think that the 'Weird Bug Helpline' may be a play on more conventional helplines, and weird computer bugs that only appear 'every 17 years' when a user presents with an odd edge case that wasn't anticipated? 09:16, 17 June 2022 (UTC)

I just got a message from the Odd Perfect Number hotline!

I was trying to explain to someone today that the question of whether there are any odd perfect numbers is an open problem, so I asked Google Assistant and was informed that https://arxiv.org/abs/2101.07176 proves that there aren't! 21:15, 15 June 2022 (UTC)

Cosmic Ray Phenomena

When I started reading the comic, I was sure it's referring to cosmic ray phenomena. Reading further it made less sense, though I feel it should be mentioned in this explanation. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I do not agree. This is something happening to astronauts in space. Not to a guy calling an astronomy hot-line. --Kynde (talk) 13:35, 16 June 2022 (UTC)

Trivia US UFO helpline

AFAIK you can only report UFOs to the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG) if you're in the military. They really want to have sensor data, too. But with a smartphone, you can get apps to identify astronomical objects or airplanes by pointing your phone at them. metabunk.org does a lot of UFO identification. -- 11:07, 16 June 2022 (UTC)

other xkcd related?

https://xkcd.com/1391/ - people forgetting that the sun is visible during day https://xkcd.com/1493/ - the bug hotline might have been built on the bug tracker

Could this comic be referring to the Supernova Early Warning System?

Is this comic possibly a reference to the Supernova Early Warning System(SNEWS) or some other similar astronomy organisation? SNEWS is basically an astronomer hotline(or rather mailing list). If astronomers detect what they think is a supernova, they let astronomers(amateur and professional) around the world know about the event, so that they can try to point their telescopes at the supernova quickly enough to observe it/ work out what it is/ study it. I always thought of this as an astronomer hotline: If you see some strange lights in the night sky, you can call upon every astronomer in the world to point their telescopes at it and work out what it is. -- 08:20, 17 June 2022 (UTC)