Title text: Einstein was WRONG when he said that provisional patent #39561 represented a novel gravel-sorting technique and should be approved by the Patent Office.
Nobel laureate and Time Person of the Century Albert Einstein is often considered one of the smartest and most influential men in world history. His theories revolutionized our understanding of the Universe and inspired generations of scientists. In this comic, Cueball indicates to a friend that he is working on an experiment that may disprove Einstein. The implication is that Cueball is conducting a formal scientific experiment which may disprove one of Einstein's scientific theories. The second frame, however, implies that the Einsteinian "theory" Cueball's experiment may disprove is an offhand (and subjective) remark by Einstein about the availability of good sandwiches.
There are several possible interpretations/explanations for this comic, which is slightly vague:
- The first possibility is that Randall is playing with the notion that everything Einstein said constitutes words to live by: A casual observation on the quality of sandwiches is treated as a major hypothesis, and Cueball is in fact conducting a formal scientific experiment which may "disprove" the statement.
- This would not be the first time that xkcd has addressed people taking scientists too seriously. In 947: Investing, Randall comments on how people put too much credence in a joke Einstein made in passing, and in comic 799 we see Stephen Hawking in a similar predicament, every word he says taken as a major declaration.
- A key part of the humour is that a significant number of people believe Einstein's physical theories (particularly Special and General Relativity) to be wrong: its universal promotion in scientific literature is ascribed to a conspiracy. This attitude has been lampooned before in xkcd comic 808 and comic 675.
- The second possibility is that Cueball is simply trying to impress his friend by using "technically accurate" language to imply that he is involved in important scientific work, when all he is really doing is buying sandwiches and hoping to find a good one. (Perhaps he's a scientist out to lunch with an old friend who's never respected his work, and knows that anything Einstein-related sounds impressive and foreboding, meaning his friend is unlikely to ask for details.)
- Another explanation might be simply that while scientists today are so focused on determining whether he was right, all he really cared about was finding a good sandwich shop.
The title text demonstrates the ability to "disprove" Einstein while not challenging his scientific work but rather one of his decisions in his capacity as a patent clerk at the Swiss Patent Office at the time he published his first major papers (previously alluded to in 1067: Pressures). According to the Einstein FAQ on the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property's website, patent #39561 is one of several patents that "we can assume ... were personally examined by Einstein". A PDF of the patent, which was indeed a gravel sorter (trommel), can be found here (in German).
Another part of the joke involves tenses: when Cueball says "I'm currently conducting an experiment," his friend assumes that Cueball is involved in an ongoing research project; but he actually means that he is conducting an experiment at that very moment, by eating a sandwich.
- [Cueball and friend eating at a table.]
- Cueball: I'm currently conducting an experiment which may prove Einstein wrong!
- Friend: Ooh, exciting!
- [Einstein and Cueball walking.]
- Einstein: It's impossible to find a good sandwich in this town.