1436: Orb Hammer
Title text: Ok, but make sure to get lots of pieces of rock, because later we'll decide to stay in a room on our regular orb and watch hammers hold themselves and hit rocks for us, and they won't bring us very many rocks.
Cueball suggests doing something that sounds absurd and not useful at all for the daily activities of a regular human. Yet it refers in unexpected English words to the Apollo human spaceflight program which, among other things, sent people to the Moon to bring moon rock samples back to Earth to study them (i.e. hitting the glowing orb in the night sky with a hammer until little pieces break off). Although you might think that moon rocks would be prized as unique scientific samples, in actual fact many of them were stolen or simply lost. Many were given as gifts to politicians from US states and foreign countries, who then kept them, sold them or had them stolen - two-thirds of these moon rocks are missing and presumably locked up in a cupboard, display cabinet or warehouse somewhere. The rest are kept in museums or laboratory store rooms, where they usually stay untouched except for the occasional removal of samples.
The use of such language contributes to the effect of the suggestion sounding absurd. Of course, numerous results of the Apollo program have in fact had many benefits for regular people.
No person has been on the Moon since the final Apollo mission, Apollo 17, in 1972. Occasional lunar rocks can still be collected on Earth. They are formed when a celestial body impacts the Moon's surface, forming a crater and launching small rocks into the space. Some of them will eventually reach Earth, see lunar meteorites.
The title text refers to various robotic missions, including the current Mars missions (Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity) as well as to the Philae lander component of the Rosetta mission (with details of its intended landing site confirmed a mere handful of days before the comic).
With robots, instead of traveling to Mars ourselves, we stay on Earth ("our regular orb") and program and direct rovers to operate remotely. Hence the rovers are described as hammers that hold themselves. The rovers collect geological samples and analyze them on site, but have no way to send the samples back to Earth. This is why the title text ask to make sure to get lots of pieces of rock because it seems we will not go that far in to space today or any time soon.
The idea of using simple language in highly technical fields began with 547: Simple and was revisited in 722: Computer Problems and 1133: Up Goer Five. It should be noted however, that in this case Randall didn't use the 1000 most basic words in the English language, because the Simple English Wikipedia's List of 1000 basic words does not contain the words "glowing" or "orb," but does contain "moon," "earth," "bright," and "ball."
The idea of using unexpected language to create humor highlighting the absurdity of normal activities has previously been explored with 203: Hallucinations.
- [Cueball talks to another Cueball-like guy:]
- Cueball: You know that glowing orb in the night sky?
- Guy: Yeah?
- Cueball: Let's go hit it with a hammer until little pieces break off, then bring the pieces back and lock them in a closet.
- Guy: Sounds good!
- [Caption below the frame:]
- The Apollo program was weird.
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