638: The Search
Title text: I am so excited about the Kepler mission. This is the second most important thing our species has ever done, right behind developing the concept of delivery pizza.
This comic is a commentary on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The ants' dialogue describes the narrow scope of their search (a few tiles, and only looking for pheromone trails), and thus they conclude that there is no other intelligent life. The irony is that humanity does of course exist, but were simply not present in the kitchen at the time of search, nor do we communicate with ant pheromones. Similarly, our ability to search outer space for other life is limited to our ability to detect specific modes of communication (i.e. radio waves) and to the very limited area of space imposed by technological limitations on transportation, range, and sensitivity of our equipment.
The title text refers to the Kepler mission to discover Extrasolar planets. In August 2009, a couple of weeks before this comic, the first results of this mission were released, which showed the spacecraft to be healthy and had detected a known exoplanet. No new science results would be released until November of 2009, which Randall was anticipating. This mission has found more than 2,700 planet candidates that still have to be confirmed by other telescopes. So that's the difference to the ants. As of August 2013, two "reaction wheels" (heavy metallic discs that can be spun to impart angular momentum to the probe, mounted on the major axis; an alternative to reaction thrusters, which require a depletable supply of reaction fuel) on Kepler have failed, causing NASA to change the mission, though it will still be looking for planets with its two remaining wheels.
The second part is a bait-and-switch joke; by calling the search for extrasolar planets "the second most important thing our species has ever done", it creates the expectation that the "first most important thing" will be a monumental breakthrough, such as for example the concept of language. Instead, the title text ends up just revealing that Randall likes having pizza delivered.
- Ant: We've searched dozens of these floor tiles for several common types of pheromone trails.
- Ant: If there were intelligent life up there, we would have seen its messages by now.
- The world's first ant colony to achieve sentience calls off the search for us.
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