564: Crossbows

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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I hate being the slowest guy in the lab.
Title text: I hate being the slowest guy in the lab.


There are conflicting theories as to the meaning of this comic.

  1. At the time this was written, there was much hype about the Higgs mechanism, as it was a theory explaining how particles got their masses. Experimental confirmation of the Higgs mechanism and its signature particle (the Higgs boson) was seen as so important that the boson was dubbed the "God particle". Detecting it, however, required accelerating particles to energies higher than ever before. Since this was at the cutting edge of physics, it was unknown what would actually happen. There were fears that the experiment would create a micro black hole or worse. This comic could be seen as applying those fears to a common trope in horror movies and video games where a mutant infestation is created by unknowing scientists. The scientists here, apart from poor Cueball, have done their research and armed themselves for any upcoming dangers. It is unknown whether these dangers are specific or not. Some argue that velociraptors are a common enough theme in xkcd that the experimenters are preparing for a velociraptor attack. Others point out that the crossbow is a weapon in the game series Half-Life, whose plot has a similar infestation following a failed physical experiment ripping dimensional seams. They mention that someone at the particle accelerator closely resembled one of the main characters of Half-Life. Of course, the crossbows may just be a general preparation for danger.
  2. Since the experimental confirmation or denial of the Higgs mechanism was widely recognized as important to the development of physics, the experimenters involved were likely to receive Nobel Prizes. Nobel Prizes, however, are only given to living people and groups of up to three in size. The experimenters, therefore, are preparing to fight to the death when the discovery comes. Peter Higgs had made a statement in 2008 hinting that the confirmation would come within one year, and that statement was made one year before the Tuesday mentioned in the comic. Tentative experimental confirmation of the Higgs boson was made in July 2013.
  3. This comic may simply be general sympathy for those late to catch on to something. Substituting different things for "crossbow" and "Higgs excitation" would give a similar situation for Cueball. Randall apparently hates these situations. A layer of metahumor could be present here, as Cueball may represent the clueless readers of xkcd who have to go to the forum or this wiki to understand its comics.
  4. The comic may simply be making a jab at school/university labs used in science classes, which have a reputation of containing strange or confusing equipment that may or may not pertain to the assigned experiments. While the particular nature of the object (a lethal weapon) and the complexity of the supposed topic (the then-unconfirmed Higgs-Boson particle) may be exaggerations, this only adds to the surreality often present in xkcd (as well as the fact that Cueball's peers have a complete understanding of the crossbow's purpose).
  5. The other scientists are messing with Cueball.

In the first and second interpretations, the title text could refer to literally being the slowest in the lab, and therefore the least able to outrun whatever is making everyone carry crossbows.

The proper interpretation of this comic, or whether there even is one, remains an open question.


[Cueball is pulling a crossbow out of a desk.]
Cueball: Why do you have a crossbow in your desk?
Megan (off-screen): You don't?
[Pan to Megan who looks towards Cueball who is off-screen to the left.]
Cueball (off-screen): No—why would—
Megan: You are studying the consequences of Higgs excitation, aren't you?
Megan: Like the rest of the lab?
[Cueball, now carying Megan's crossbow joins her as the panel extends to include another Cueball-like guy to her right, he also carries a crossbow.]
Cueball: Yes, but why—
Guy: Maybe he's slow with the math.
Megan: Well, he has until Tuesday.
Guy: Poor guy.

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Is there any evidence for involvement of velicoraptors in this comic?Guru-45 (talk) 17:24, 29 July 2013 (UTC)

I did add the incomplete tag. Physicists are unsure on gravity? I also can't see any hints for Velociraptors at the comic. The explain does need a major review. When I have enough time I will give a try.--Dgbrt (talk) 17:57, 29 July 2013 (UTC)

The "explanation" is really bad and contains many errors. The first sentence "Physicists are unsure of most of the forces that govern our everyday lives" is extremely vague; "attraction" is a certain sign of a force (i.e. the force pulls two particles together instead of pushing them apart), "gravity" is a certain type of force (like electromagnetism or the nuclear forces). The Higgs Boson is not a force, it wasn't theorized in the late 1900s, and it acts on the scale of fundamental particles which are several orders of magnitude smaller than atoms. The LHC was not set to be released, but to be activated. No serious particle physicist expected that the experiments at the LHC would have drastic ramifications. That accelerator had a malfunction shortly after its first activation had nothing to do with the Higgs Boson. etc. I Think this needs to be completely rewritten. -- 15:46, 19 August 2013 (UTC)

Err yes. This piece was a train wreck which I turned into a rundown shack. It needs a few more citation links (for the confirmation, and to Cueball and Randall), a few more examples of infestations, and a more fleshed out explanation of why a crossbow in particular (and if velociraptors come in). --Quicksilver (talk) 21:38, 20 August 2013 (UTC)

The point of this was missed completely by this explanation. The physics Nobel price has never been avarded to more than three people and is only awarded to people alive when the price is given. As the discovery of the Higgs certainly will give a Nobel price to someone, and there are more than three people working in that particular lab on the Higgs, they prepare for some kind of battle royale until there are less than three researchers left, such that they can be awarded the price. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I did add the incomplete tag again because a summarize of some theories doesn't help.--Dgbrt (talk) 21:14, 22 August 2013 (UTC)

I think it's more likely to be option number 2, as they talk about how Cueball hasn't yet done the maths. If it was just a Nobel prize, they would've already known they were close to a breakthrough, without having to do any calc. Obviously the maths reveals the possibility of some sinister mutation as explained in point 2. Just a random opinion floating through. Alcatraz ii (talk) 10:31, 23 August 2013 (UTC)

No 2 might also be a reference to the quote by an American physicist that the LHC might discover dragons (see eg http://blog.iandavis.com/2008/09/15/the-lhc-may-discover-dragons/). I still like explanation 1 best though, even dispute the math thing. Maybe it just refers to counting the lab members? 17:47, 23 August 2013 (UTC)

I'm glad people are not complaining about the explanation anymore (I did put more effort into this baby than any page yet). I do not, however, think we can proceed any further until we get something straight from the horse's mouth, i.e. a clear indication from Randall of which way this comic was to be interpreted.

Until then, this explanation has explained all it can, and I thus see it as complete. --Quicksilver (talk) 03:42, 24 August 2013 (UTC)

I think it just might be pointing at all the inside jokes a group of people have and the nuances the newbies have to put up with in order to be "IN" the group. Might also be a precursor to xkcd 794, although seemingly unrelated. 15:51, 10 December 2013 (UTC)BK201

I vote for the results of this experiment being society changing. Or #2. 17:16, 1 January 2014 (UTC)

I think the only point is that cueball doesn't understand why they have crossbows, I think the possible explanations as to why they have them don't really matter. user:halfhat 13 January 2014 (UTC)

I don't think explanation #1 is correct. In the last panel Megan says "he has until Tuesday", suggesting that he has a chance to "get it" and thus avoid "something". But just having a chance would seem to suggest that they don't plan on shooting/killing each other. Having "until Tuesday" would seem to indicate that Cueball has a chance to prepare, likely for explanation #2 - the "Half-Life" scenario. That's my 2 cents. =8o) Jarod997 (talk) 14:14, 28 January 2014 (UTC)

With the Nobel prize teams being up to three members, perhaps they're doing an intellectual survival of the fittest. If the third member of the team isn't up to speed then kill him and replace him. Poor guy... (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I think this comic is a callback to 476: One-Sided, since it mentions a crossbow as well. 21:45, 28 April 2016 (UTC)

This panel includes numerous clues its explanation one. Unfortunately, its all rather *logical*.. which is only thematic with other xkcd panels. There is no need to reference any other cartoon , the use of crossbows is incidental.

1. HE SAID it will be solved by tuesday. Logically this implies HE analzyed the thought processing rate of humans brains and the higgs puzzle,and determined it will be done by tuesday. 2. Since it will be done by tuesday, the people who are the only possible people to do it by tuesday will be the ones 3. Where does someone assess the speed someone thinks at ??? Only the perfect logicians puzzles.. "Three perfect logicians, who think at the same rate, are given a puzzle. They sit stumped for three seconds. Then they all deduce the solution at the same time." Ok so the solution is the one that takes three seconds for all three to not solve, and then they solve it.. (its absurd but the material the joke references doesn't itself have to be sensible, it just has to be a well known thing. ) 4. ERGO He said they are perfect logicians who think at the same rate. 5. ERGO when both of the other people in the lab have crossbows, its clear that both of the other people have deduced they are the perfect logicians that HE SAID they are ! 6. "Perhaps he is slow at MATHS". That is, he can solve logic at the same rate, but he is only slow at math. THis is where I get the "think at the same speed from".. he is slow at math.. he thinks at the same speed.. two sides of the same coin.. a reference to the "perfect logicians who think at the same speed".

7. Therefore they have no doubt that their solution (to being the one creditted with the observation of Higgs particle or effect.) .. the crossbow.. is a perfectly logical solution. Because HE said .

The joke is that when you treat what HE SAID as the utter truth, you have to form conclusions like this... 05:39, 13 November 2016 (UTC)

Add the following to the actual page...

but Randy's panel was released in the week that Higgs' prediction was going to fail...

If Peter Higgs can say that the aims will be met within a year, he must have done two things. 1. Analyzed the complexity, and hence the exact number of steps, of the problem to meet the aims. and 2. That the people meeting the aims will carry out those steps at some specific rate, at least... Meaning definitely never slower.

Further, what does it mean for the other guy to say "Maybe he is slow with the math". Speed of thought , and the assumption that people think at the same rates, is part of the logic puzzle that starts "Three perfect logicians who think at the same rate are given a puzzle".... The two with crossbows have deduced that they are the perfect logicians who think at the same rate. Because they have accepted what Peter Higgs said about tuesday to be true, and to refer to them. Their lab is going to have detected the Higgs thingy by Tuesday.

What does it mean that both of the other two lab people have crossbows ? They both think the same, they both have them at the same time... they are the perfect logicians who think at the same rate.. the mouse other text "I hate being the slowest person in the lab".. really points at the idea that these two have deduced that since they both thought of crossbows, it must be the one logical solution ... (whereas real humans deduce that murdering other top scientists just to claim the Nobel prize is completely wrong... ) Its proof that there is a problem when you raise "what Peter Higgs predicted" to be "Must be absolutely true since Peter Higgs said it"....

Before the full text of this explanation was entered, there were alternatives, which may be read just in case they somehow gained similar merit. -- Leong (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I... I undid Leong's edits. This article went from trainwreck, to run-down shack, to abandoned cottage, to a nice little bungalow, to a rather fine suburban townhouse. Then M. Leong threw a train at it. I was, suffice to say, rather shocked at how appalling the explanation was. The fact that there were major edits (totaling nearly 1,500 characters added and God knows how many actually changed) several years after the comic's release was a red flag. Papayaman1000 (talk) 08:08, 20 November 2016 (UTC)

I thought they were just going to shoot the Cueball without the crossbow or they would kill the slowest guy in the lab.

Please sign your posts with 4 ~’s, and put your comments at the bottom.Netherin5 (talk) 17:01, 14 February 2019 (UTC)

What does explanation 2 have anything to do with being slow with the math? IMO it's obviously going for explanation 1, but some sort of variant where instead of causing black holes somehow it releases zombies or whatnot. 03:01, 4 October 2020 (UTC)

Yeah I also read it as raptors or some other attacking creature, due to the double meaning in "I hate being the slowest guy in the lab." As the joke goes, you don't need to run faster than the raptor, you just need to run faster than the slowest guy. 05:41, 18 January 2022 (UTC)

This is my first time coming to this explanation page. I burst out chuckling on reading the first line. You wiki editors are a riot. 15:08, 6 March 2022 (UTC)