1212: Interstellar Memes

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Interstellar Memes
The strongest incentive we have to develop faster-than-light travel is that it would let us apologize in advance.
Title text: The strongest incentive we have to develop faster-than-light travel is that it would let us apologize in advance.

A larger version of this picture can be found by clicking the comic on xkcd.


Randall highlights various memes from popular culture. A meme is a phenomenon, often in this scenario in the form of a movie quote, a musical reference, a catchphrase or other notable saying that spreads quickly by word-of-mouth. Memes become popular because people hear about them and repeat them to others. Randall points out that if the assumed intelligent life from other star systems were listening to the things we said, then they would just now be hearing and popularizing memes started years ago on earth. The delay is due to the time that it takes for expressions of the meme to travel (presumably via radio waves) to distant star systems.

Our solar system, from where the electromagnetic waves are emitted, is located just left of the center of the picture. The other star systems are arranged roughly according to their distance from the sun, while their size corresponds to the size of the star compared with that of the sun.

The meme for Sirius is a pun; it refers to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which Bellatrix Lestrange kills Sirius Black.

Radio waves travel at the speed of light. The title text jokes that these memes are so annoying that it would give us further incentive to develop the technology to travel faster than light, just simply to be able to outrun the radio waves, reach a distant star system, and apologize in advance to the "residents" about the memes, before the memes arrive.

Table with memes[edit]

The table below lists all the memes described, and the star at which the comics states those memes should be heard by the time when the comic was released in 2013. The year of the meme plus the number of light years to the star should end up close to 2013.

Most end up within the range 2011-2013 which may indicate the meme became popular one or two years later (on Earth or at the distant star system.) Two memes reach the targets in 2014. Some of those errors may be caused by the inaccuracy of the distances.

The The Spanish Inquisition from Monty Python would have reached its destination in 2006. Because they're still watching Monty Python's Flying Circus in 2013 it must be very popular or maybe it took seven years to decipher that British humour.

Meme Star Origin Year Distance to star Sum year
Yabba dabba doo! Castor The Flintstones 1960 51 ± 3 ly 2011 ± 3
You've got to ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Lambda Aurigae Dirty Harry 1971 41.2 ± 0.1 ly 2012
Where's the beef? HR 1614 Slogan for Wendy's 1984 28 ly 2012
And now for something completely different. Capella Monty Python's Flying Circus 1969 42 ly 2011
Here's lookin' at you, kid. Kappa Reticuli Casablanca 1942 70 ly 2012
My spoon is too big! Kapteyn's Star Rejected 2000 12 ly 2012
May the force be with you. Delta Trianguli Star Wars 1977 35 ly 2012
Peanut butter jelly time! Luyten's Star an Internet meme 2002 12 ly 2014
Rosebud. Alpha Hydri Citizen Kane 1941 71 ly 2012
Oh my god, they killed Kenny! – You bastards! AD Leonis South Park 1997 15.9 ± 0.2 ly 2013
...God kills a kitten! – A what? Procyon an Internet meme 2002 11.5 ly 2013
I still can't believe Bellatrix– – Dude, get over it. Sirius Harry Potter (book 5) 2003 8.6 ly 2012
Ninjas fight all the time! Epsilon Eridani The Official Ninja Webpage 2002 10 ly 2012
D'oh! HR 753 The Simpsons 1989 23 ly 2012
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Beta Virginis Monty Python's Flying Circus 1970 35,6 ly 2006
All your base are belong to us. Tau Ceti Zero Wing 2001 11.9 ly 2013
Take me to your leader! – No, Steve. Caph Take me to your leader (phrase) 1957 55 ly 2012
Chuck Norris doesn't sleep. He waits. Wolf 359 Chuck Norris facts 2005 7.8 ly 2013
♬ Numa numa ♪ Lalande 21185 Numa Numa song 2004 8.3 ly 2012
I can haz? Luhman 16 Lolcats 2006 6.6 ± 0.5 ly 2013
Internets! Gliese 65 George W. Bush Internet meme 2004 8.7 2013
Look at the tiny dancing Earth mammals! Gliese 1 Hampsterdance and/or Dancing Baby 1998 14 ly 2012
Wasssuup!?! Van Maanen's star Budweiser Beer advertising campaign 1999 14 ly 2013
Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker. Beta Hydri Die Hard 1988 24 ly 2012
I pity the fool! Groombridge 1830 Rocky III (Mr. T) 1982 30 ly 2012
The cake is a lie! Alpha Centauri A/B Portal 2007 4.3 ly 2011
♪ Never gonna give you up ♫ Alpha Centauri A/B Rickrolling 2007 4.3 ly 2011
I'm on a boat! Proxima Centauri The Lonely Island 2009 4.243 ± 0.002 ly 2013
♫ Chocolate Raaaiiin ♫ Barnard's Star Tay Zonday: Chocolate Rain video 2007 6 ly 2013
Leave Britney alone! Barnard's Star Chris Crocker: LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE! 2007 6 ly 2013
You're the man now, dog! Epsilon Indi YTMND 2001 11.8 2013
More cowbell! Kruger 60 Saturday Night Live 2000 13 ly 2013
Hasta la vista, baby. Gliese 892 Terminator 2 1991 21 ly 2012
Let's get ready to ruuumble! Zeta Tucanae Michael Buffer 1984 28 ly 2012
You talkin' to me? Arcturus Taxi Driver 1976 36.7 ± 0.3 ly 2013
Did I do that? Boötis Family Matters (Steve Urkel) 1989 21.89 ± 0.07 ly 2011
Welcome to Good Burger, home of the good burger. – What's a burger? – I don't know. 70 Ophiuchi Good Burger slogan 1997 16.58 ± 0.07 ly 2014
Badger badger badger badger Ross 154 Badger Badger Badger 2003 9.7 ly 2013
Live long and prosper. – OK. HD 211415 Star Trek 1967 44 ly 2011
Name's Bond. James Bond. 51 Pegasi Dr. No (James Bond) 1962 50.9 ± 0.3 ly 2013
Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. Alpha Serpentis Gone with the Wind 1939 74.0 ± 0.3 ly 2013
Mr. T ate my balls! Altair an Internet meme 1996 16.7 ly 2013
I want the truth. – You can't handle the truth! Delta Pavonis A Few Good Men 1992 20 ly 2012
I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse. Beta Trianguli Australis The Godfather 1972 40 ly 2012
Resistance is futile. Vega Star Trek (Borg) 1988 25 ly 2013
Oh... My... Gaawd Sigma Draconis Friends (Janice Goralnik) 1994 18.8 ly 2013
Ehh, what's up, Doc? Gienah Bugs Bunny 1940 73 ly 2013
EXTERMINATE! Alderamin Doctor Who (The Daleks) 1963 49 ly 2012


[On a black background yellow circles and white bubbles are shown. Caption above the picture:]
If other star systems are listening in on our pop culture, given the speed-of-light delay, these are the jokes and catchphrases they just learned about and are currently repeating way too much:
[On a black background a map of star systems in relation to the Sun, which is roughly in the center, sending out radio waves is shown. Each star is a yellow circle of differing sizes, with a speech bubble (or more). The list is ordered from closest to furthest.]
Proxima Centauri: I'm on a boat!
Alpha Centauri A B: The cake is a lie! – ♪ Never gonna give you up ♫
Luhman 16: I can haz?
Barnard's star: Leave Britney alone! – ♫ Chocolate Raaaiiin ♫
Wolf 359: Chuck Norris doesn't sleep. He waits.
Lalande 21185: ♬ Numa numa ♪
Sirius: I still can't believe Bellatrix– – Dude, get over it.
Gliese 65: INTERNETS!
Epsilon Eridani: Ninjas fight all the time!
Procyon: ...God kills a kitten! – A what?
Epsilon Indi: You're the man now, dog!
Tau Ceti: All your base are belong to us.
Luyten's Star: Peanut Butter Jelly Time!
Kapteyn's star: My spoon is too big!
Kruger 60: MORE COWBELL!
Gliese 1: Look at the tiny dancing Earth mammals!
Van Maanen's star: WASSSUUP!?!
Ad Leonis: Oh my God, they killed Kenny! – You bastards!
70 Ophiuchi: Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger. – What's a burger? – I don't know.
Altair: Mr. T ate my balls!
Sigma Draconis: Oh ... my ... gaawd.
Delta Pavonis: I want the truth. – You can't handle the truth!
Gliese 892: Hasta la vista, baby.
Xi Boötis: Did I do that?
HR 753: D'oh!
Beta Hydri: Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker.
Vega: Resistance is futile.
Zeta Tucanae: Let's get ready to ruuumble!
HR 1614: Where's the beef?
Groombridge 1830: I pity the fool!
Delta Trianguli: May the Force be with you.
Beta Virginis: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!
Arcturus: You talkin' to me ?
Beta Trianguli Australis: I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse.
Lamda Aurigae: You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?'
Capella: And now for something completely different.
HD 211415: Live long and prosper. – Ok.
51 Pegasi: Name's bond. James Bond.
Caph: Take me to your leader! – No, Steve.
Kappa Reticuli: Here's lookin' at you, kid.
Alpha Hydri: Rosebud.
Gienah: Ehh, what's up doc?
Alpha Serpentis: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

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I'm surprised ponies didn't make the list given how massively and completely they took over the Internet in recent years. Then again, xkcd hasn't made any mention of the phenomenon, which is pretty nice, I guess. 04:35, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

Given that the closest one, "I'm on a boat," predates the first episode of MLP:FiM by more than a year (the brony phenomenon by even more), it's safe to say that ponies have not reached the nearest star yet. -- 04:42, 15 May 2013 (UTC)
Agreed. MLP:FIM premiered in October 2010. The show will hit the Alpha Centauri system early 2015. Frijole (talk) 16:28, 15 May 2013 (UTC)
I didn't have the date/distance chart at the time of posting, and indeed didn't realize how much time had past since some of these became popular. I feel much older with that in perspective. 04:03, 17 May 2013 (UTC)
As of this writing, the MLP premiere would now be at Luhman 16... and this very comic would be at Proxima Centauri. 00:17, 2 December 2017 (UTC)

It would be great to have the distances (in light years) of the stars as a fourth column. This would also provide a chronological order. -- 08:06, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

If I look at the page source, there is no transcript this time... Kaa-ching (talk) 08:41, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

anyone else notice Sirius is getting the Bellatrix one? Xseo (talk) 08:49, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

Yeah, it was funny :D Zakator (talk) 10:55, 15 May 2013 (UTC)
Should this reference be mentioned? On the one hand, it is a spoiler, but on the other hand, a) we *are* here to explain the jokes, and b) the book is almost a decade old, so I'm pretty sure there's a statute of limitations involved here. Curtmack (talk) 14:56, 15 May 2013 (UTC)
It's also funny that Sirius is a character in Harry Potter books/films. Double joke? --Dangerkeith3000 (talk) 15:21, 15 May 2013 (UTC)
Sorta, but it's Rowling's joke, not Randall's. The entire Black family (except for Narcissa, who was named before her family ties were established) is named after objects in the sky. Sirius is the only one in range. Of the ones I can remember, Regulus is 77 ly away, Bellatrix is roughly 250 ly away, and Andromeda is an entirely separate galaxy. --Druid816 (talk) 21:43, 16 May 2013 (UTC)

If any civilization have nothing better to do that repeating our memes, there is no need to apologize to them: they will obviously be glad they have at least something. How many people on our planet are repeating memes from other civilizations? None. (The circles in crop doesn't count, they are not send by radio.) -- Hkmaly (talk) 08:51, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

Given that the Rick Astley one is on the same star as Portal, which came out in 2007, it's probably meant to refer to rickrolling (and thus the date should also be 2007 for that one). Zakator (talk) 10:55, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

All your base are belong to us didn't start as a meme in the 1970. I don't have precise data right now but I'm pretty sure it was 1997-99 when it first appeared on the internet. Also, what is the Sun doing? 11:14, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

1998 according to knowyourmeme. And I think the Sun is probably sending out all those radio waves for the aliens to listen to, or something? But I couldn't find an accurate way to portray it, so I just left it at that. Zakator (talk) 11:18, 15 May 2013 (UTC)
The map only shows stars, or rather star systems. We live in the sol system, where all these memes originate from, hence the sun is shown as the origin of the "radio waves". In the same fashion, these supposed aliens don't actually live on the stars themselves, but rather on planets (or maybe moons?) around the stars. --Buggz (talk) 11:49, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

In "Take me to your leader! - No, Steve", what is the "No, Steve" part referencing? The link currently is just for the "take me to your leader" part. 15:14, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

I thought that the "No, Steve" made it into an explicit reference to Newsboys album/song (Steve Taylor wrote the lyrics for it). But then, that's a song fron 1996, and it would not be consistent with distance, while 1953 makes more sense... 15:49, 15 May 2013 (UTC)
"Steve" is an alien. "Take me to your leader," is a meme which "Steve" has been repeating. It helps if you read it with a somewhat exasparated inflection.-- 18:47, 16 May 2013 (UTC)

If you order the list by distance, further stars should get memes from earlier times, but this is not always the case. I think that some of the memes deserve more investigation, namely: "Internets!", "You're the man now, dog" and "All your base are belong to us!". Sort the list by distance and it becomes immediately apparent what I mean. 15:54, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

"Internets" was from George W Bush but in 2004. internets meme-- 16:08, 15 May 2013 (UTC)
"You're the man now, dog" refers to a web site launched in 2001 which fits to the approx. 12 Lj.--Dgbrt (talk) 18:29, 15 May 2013 (UTC)
"All your base are belong to us!" should also belong to 2001. I found this wired.com which explains that the internet meme probably began in 2001. But I am not sure.--Dgbrt (talk) 18:37, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

Wouldn't "I'm on a boat!", as a popular and well-known meme known to the wider public, refer to the Old Spice commercial, rather than a song by the The Lonely Island? None of the few I spoke with had ever heard of the group, but all credited the quote to "the Old Spice guy". 17:56, 15 May 2013 (UTC)

I thought about this also before. But "I'm on a boat!" is the meme published by "The Lonely Island".--Dgbrt (talk) 18:02, 15 May 2013 (UTC)
pick one Xseo (talk) 21:36, 15 May 2013 (UTC)
Old Spice Guy says "You're on a boat", and finishes with "I'm on a horse"[1]... "I'm on a boat" isn't quite right for OSG. --SurturZ (talk) 03:45, 16 May 2013 (UTC)
I sit corrected. 16:18, 16 May 2013 (UTC)

Title text: "The strongest incentive we have to develop faster-than-light travel is that it would let us apologize in advance." Is this an error by Randall? Faster-than-light would work if that travel did start at the time of transmission of those memes. Actually all messages had arrive at their targets so only Time-Travel would help. Nevertheless both ideas are impossible.--Dgbrt (talk) 18:51, 16 May 2013 (UTC)

It's too late to apologize to the stars on this comic, but we could apologize to the ones farther out who have yet to be annoyed by us. --Druid816 (talk) 21:45, 16 May 2013 (UTC)
No, it is possible. That's relativity! With faster than light travel we can still reach them. (Effect is similar as time travel!) Sebastian -- 04:59, 17 May 2013 (UTC)
Actually, depending on the reference frame (speed and movement direction of the observer) the notion of simultaneity does not hold for objects being spaciously apart. Sebastian -- 13:14, 17 May 2013 (UTC)
We can also apologize for newer memes. 04:03, 17 May 2013 (UTC)

I guess I'm not too surprised that residents circling Beta Virginis are still doing the Spanish Inquisition schtick 7+ years later. But they got Holy Grail over two years ago. So I assume they're also pretending to be Knights Who Say Ni by now. Opusthepenguin (talk) 16:34, 14 June 2013 (UTC)

It's worth mentioning that Randall debunks this idea of an interstellar audience in http://what-if.xkcd.com/47/. 23:53, 18 May 2014 (UTC)

The problem, though, with the older memes here, i.e. Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and Bugs Bunny, is that they were released to the public in film. They would have to wait until television broadcast in the '50s and '60s to be exported interstellarly. Most the other movies too, only they wouldn't have to wait so long. But we certainly wouldn't have stars 70 light-years away imitating us because that content hasn't gotten there yet. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

A clever point, yet disputable. One can imagine that the catchphrases of those days were repeated in radio. Similarly, "The cake is a lie" will probably not be observed from space due to its occurrence in a video game but from the subsequent repetition of the phrase in ether media. Mumiemonstret (talk) 15:39, 23 March 2015 (UTC)

http://abstrusegoose.com/163 is a similar concept -- 09:55, 9 January 2015 (UTC)

Fixed the transcript. This is my first time editing. Please help my fixing any mistakes I made. Thanks.Dontknow (talk) 05:20, 2 March 2017 (UTC)

The first public radio broadcast in 1910 would have reached 109 Piscium not too long ago. 02:54, 2 December 2017 (UTC)

Hi aliens from Barnard’s Star! (It’s like Hi Youtube)! 13:40, 30 October 2019 (UTC)

I didn't expect the spanish inquisition [citation needed] 07:08, 29 October 2021 (UTC)