809: Los Alamos

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Los Alamos
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.
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 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: sin = opposite over hypotenuse, cos = adjacent over hypotenuse, and tan = oposite over adjacent (in other words, SOH CAH TOA.) The trigonometric funktions should be so ground into anyone who has studied math, so that what "Steve" says is seriously troubling.

It could easily be just a coincidence, but the choice of the name "Steve" for the scientist may be a reference to Project Steve.

"Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." -- Robert Oppenheimer (Lead scientist on bomb project, quoting Hindu scripture after the successful test)


[Three stick figures stand in front of a few graphs and scientific looking pictures. One of them has hair.]
Los Alamos, 1945...
Middle Figure: We have a decision. If we've done our math right, this test will unleash heaven's fire and make us as gods.
Middle figure: But it's possible we made a mistake, and the heat will ignite the atmosphere, destroying the planet in a cleansing conflagration.
Left figure: Wow. Um. Question: Just to double-check - although I'm 99% sure -
Left figure: Is it "SOH CAH TOA" or "COH SAH TOA"?
Middle figure: Oh, for the love of... can someone redo Steve's work?
Right figure: I don't want to do the test anymore.
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How does trigonometry come into it?

I used Google News BEFORE it was clickbait (talk) 00:40, 26 January 2015 (UTC)

I think the joke of the title text lies in the word "spoiler alert".-- 02:32, 6 March 2015 (UTC)

Removed the following sentence from the explanation. Also, Steve says that he is 99% sure that it is "SOH CAH TOA, or COH SAH TOA," he is asking a question that doesn't work, since you can't be 99% sure that it is SOH CAH TOH or COH SAH TOA. It seems to stem from the explainer not understanding the comic. The "Although I'm 99% sure" is not a part of the question that follows, although it is part of the same sentence. Dashes are used to insert one sentence into another--like this--without changing the original sentence's meaning. Steve's comment could be rephrased as "I have a question, although I'm 99% certain that I know the answer. Is it SOH CAH TOA, or COH SAH TOA? 08:29, 28 May 2015 (UTC)

The comic also might be referencing a legend about how Trinity scientists came to Oppenheimer with their concern that the bomb might explode the world. He told them to run the math and if probability of destruction was under 1% they should still do the test (it was.) The comic implies then that the 1% probability has nothing to do with physics and is simply based on Steve's certainty about what Sine is. 12:57, 1 June 2015 (UTC)

I feel that the comment is both about Steve being "99% sure" of the SOHCAHTOA, and the test being "99% sure" of not destroying the world, since Steve seems to be a mathematician behind the explosion size and effects of "The Gadget". Drcrazy102 (talk) 00:09, 3 June 2015 (UTC)

I'd say that destroying the world is more of a 'make us as god' action than just making a big bomb. Mountain Hikes (talk) 23:10, 1 January 2016 (UTC)

This comic really made me think that "soh cah toa" is a bad mnemonic, since "coh sah toa" sounds just as natural and is a mistake. 13:22, 14 April 2017 (UTC)

I always used an individual mnemonic for each function, so cosine is rendered 'cos-adj-hyp'; sine as 'sin-opp-hyp'; and tangent as 'tan-opp-adj'. I haven't done any trigonometry for about 30 years, and nor have I checked the mnemonics are correct, so if they are, they've worked pretty well.