567: Urgent Mission
Title text: Sure, we could stop dictators and pandemics, but we could also make the signs on every damn diagram make sense.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Aside from uniting most of his country against Britain's rule, he was also a model of a renaissance man: an author, printer, musician, politician, postmaster, inventor, scientist, and diplomat. Some of his legacies include bifocals, the Franklin stove, an odometer for a horse-drawn carriage, the almanac, and abolitionist ideals. He has since been honored with the use of his image on the $100 bill.
Franklin also did several experiments regarding electricity, and invented the lightning rod. He discovered the fundamentals of electricity, including positive and negative charges, as well as the principle of conservation of charge. When Franklin first wrote down his notes for electricity, he defined a positive charge as one left on a glass rod by rubbing it with silk, and a negative charge as one left on rubber by rubbing it with fur. Without realizing it, this meant that he had assigned a negative value to the charge on the electron, later identified as the fundamental carrier of electrical charge.
In an electrical circuit, we envisage the charge to be flowing from positive to negative. This is analogous to energy flowing from a region of high temperature to one of low temperature, or a fluid moving from an area of high pressure to one of low pressure. However, because an electron is negatively charged, the actual flow of electrons is in the opposite direction, from negative to positive. This reversal of the natural expectation has caused unnecessary confusion to many fledgling engineers.
In the comic, the invention of a time machine was commissioned with the intent of preventing a robot apocalypse. However, the Cueball that built and used the machine is an electrical engineer with misplaced priorities, believing that reversing Franklin's "mistake" takes precedence over eliminating a more immediate threat to the human race.
Cueball tells Franklin that the charge left on a glass rod by rubbing it with silk should be the negative charge, not the positive charge, because the friction removes electrons from the rod. This would not have been intuitive to Franklin, because the electron had not as of yet been discovered. Yet by telling Franklin to reverse the positive and negative conventions, this would ultimately result in an alternate universe where electrons are assigned a positive charge. One can only speculate what other changes this reversal of convention would lead to, as small changes tend to cascade into huge ones. Would the positron have been instead named the negatron? And would this affect the success of the Transformers franchise?
In the title text, Cueball defends his actions, claiming that correcting the signs on "every damn diagram" is more important than preventing the rise of atrocity-committing autocrats and deadly diseases. Cueball is likely voicing Randall's own frustration with this breach of logic, albeit exaggerated to comedic levels.
- [Cueball steps out of rift. Benjamin Franklin is sitting at his desk with quill and parchment.]
- Cueball: Benjamin Franklin?
- Franklin: Yes?
- Cueball: I bring a message from the future! I don't have much time.
- Franklin: What is it?
- Cueball: The convention you're setting for electric charge is backward. The one left on glass by silk should be the negative charge.
- We were going to use the time machine to prevent the robot apocalypse, but the guy who built it was an electrical engineer.
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