809: Los Alamos
Title text: The test didn't (spoiler alert) destroy the world, but the fact that they were even doing those calculations makes theirs the coolest jobs ever.
This comic refers to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where in 1945 their development of the first nuclear weapon had progressed to the point that they were going to explode "The Gadget" at Trinity Site. There was genuine concern that some unexpected result was possible, including the scenario about the atmosphere igniting. The scientists were almost certain that it would either work as expected, or just be a dud, but were unable to rule out several other scenarios. The test proceeded, and it worked as expected.
The joke part at the end is a reference to a common mnemonic device for basic trigonometric functions, namely identifying the relationships of sine, cosine, and tangent with respect to the lengths of a right triangle's edges: sine = opposite over hypotenuse, cosine = adjacent over hypotenuse, and tangent = opposite over adjacent (in other words, SOH CAH TOA.) "Steve" becomes concerned by the seriousness of the situation, and wants to make sure that he has not made a mistake on stuff that should be very elementary to a scientist in his position. (Steve is probably not a reference to any specific scientist in the real life Manhattan Project, see below).
"Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." – Robert Oppenheimer, Lead scientist on bomb project, quoting Hindu scripture after the successful test. There are very few jobs where one can say that with seriousness, as pointed out in the title text.
A Steve is referred to in a similar situation in comic 1532: New Horizons, where his miscalculations screw up the trajectory of the New Horizons space probe, sending it to Earth instead of Pluto. He would be at least 90 years old if it was to be the same Steve though. A person named Steve also comes up with an inappropriate suggestion in 1672: Women on 20s.
- [Three stick figures stand in front of a few graphs and scientific looking pictures. One of them has hair.]
- Los Alamos, 1945...
- Cueball: We have a decision. If we've done our math right, this test will unleash heaven's fire and make us as gods.
- Cueball: But it's possible we made a mistake, and the heat will ignite the atmosphere, destroying the planet in a cleansing conflagration.
- Steve: Wow. Um. Question: Just to double-check— although I'm 99% sure—
- Steve: Is it "SOH CAH TOA" or "COH SAH TOA"?
- Cueball: Oh, for the love of... can someone redo Steve's work?
- Hairy: I don't want to do the test anymore.