1584: Moments of Inspiration

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Moments of Inspiration
Charles, I just talked to John and Mildred, who run that company selling seeds and nuts, and their kids with MOUTHS are starving!
Title text: Charles, I just talked to John and Mildred, who run that company selling seeds and nuts, and their kids with MOUTHS are starving!


Isaac Newton's original examples describing the force of gravity show an apple falling from a tree in order to explain why the apple falls toward the Earth, instead of the Earth falling toward the apple. He is often said to have been inspired by watching falling apples; in common folklore, this developed into the legend that he was actually struck by an apple. The first part of this comic retells that famous legend. The later panels depict similar (but more and more implausible) legends that could emerge if we were to assume that other scientists' most famous examples and discoveries were based on actually observing some mundane everyday event taking place.

In the first situation, we not only see the apple fall on Newton's head, we also see the Moon. This was one of the first astronomical objects on which he used his theory of gravity. He calculated its orbit around the Earth and found that it fit with the theory.

In the second situation, Cueball throws a baseball towards Lise Meitner, but when she fails to catch the ball it hits one of her porcelain model-atoms. In this way, Meitner discovered a way to split the atom. Cueball may represent Otto Hahn, since they were part of the Hahn-Meitner-Strassmann team that worked on this problem. Hahn was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, where Meitner was overlooked. Throwing something at someone and asking them to think fast is a common "joke", where the receiver rarely has a chance to actually catch the object. But in this case, it could also be a reference to the fact that she then thought fast then made a major discovery. Or if it is Hahn, then he thought faster and got the award instead of her. The porcelain models might also be a reference to Meissen porcelain, in German called "Meißner Porzellan", where "Meißner" is phonetically very similar to "Meitner". Meitner has previously been mentioned in the comic 896: Marie Curie, which more or less explains why Randall did not choose the more famous Marie Curie as the female example in this comic. Meitner is not very well known in the public, compared to the three men or Curie, but this may exactly be the point for choosing her. She should have been just as famous considering what splitting the atom has led to. Also, there's not much in Marie's story that could be put down to fanciful anecdotes. "All" she did was extract a few chemicals and study their properties.

In the third situation, it is indicated that half of Charles Darwin's children had beaks, a property not normally found in human children.[citation needed] This would make it very difficult for them to drink soda from a glass or through a straw, compared to his normal children with mouths. Based on this observation he developed his ideas about natural selection and evolution. The comic is unclear on whether this makes them more or less fit to survive and reproduce. This is a reference to Darwin's initial findings on the HMS Beagle on how Galapagos finches with differently shaped beaks are better suited for specific types of food and therefore are better selected for in environments where those foods are available. The title text furthers this, see below. Darwin later in life feared that, having married his cousin, their consanguinity would increase the risk that his children would be born with birth defects (although he did not fear that they would be born with beaks). The difficulty caused by beaks when drinking liquids could be a reference to the Aesop's fable The Fox and the Stork.

In the fourth situation Albert Einstein remarks to a man that it's annoying that the man's twin brother keeps flashing a light from a train when Einstein is trying to check his clock. He then comes to a sudden revelation. This references several of Einstein's (different — they make little sense together in this manner) thought experiments on special relativity, such as the twin paradox (the twin on the train should be younger after decelerating to a stop), a clock built from a beam of light, the time dilation experienced by the observer in the moving frame of reference, and the various constructs involving trains and light(ning) flashes used to illustrate the relativity of simultaneity.

The title text shows that beaks rather than mouths are more useful for eating foods that have shells that need to be cracked open before eating like nuts and seeds. Here it is clear that in the John and Mildred family you starve if you cannot eat such foods, and thus it's an advantage for survival to have a beak instead of a normal mouth. "John" and "Mildred" may be Mildred and John T. Scopes of the famous 1925 "monkey trial" in which John was fined $100 for teaching evolution in a Tennessee school.


[Isaac Newton, with curly long hair, sits under a tree. A waning crescent moon can be seen. An apple falls and hits him on the head. There is a caption in a frame that breaks the top border of the main frame:]
Isaac Newton
Apple falling: Bonk
Isaac Newton: Ow!
[Isaac Newton rubs his sore head.]
Isaac Newton: Aha!
[Cueball throws a baseball towards Lise Meitner with short dark hair. (The ball can be seen in the next frame). She turns towards him too late to react and completely fails to even try catching the ball. There is a caption in a frame that breaks the top border of the main frame:]
Lise Meitner
Cueball: Hey Lise! Think fast!
Ball hitting something (off-screen): Crash
[Lise takes her hands to her mouth and she watches the broken porcelain atom lying in two pieces on the floor where it has fallen off a desk. On the desk, three other intact atoms can be seen. The baseball lies behind her.]
Lise Meitner: Oh no! My collection of porcelain atoms!
Lise Meitner:...Hmm.
[Four kids are standing in front of Megan and Charles Darwin (with a big beard and hair behind the ears). All the kids are trying to drink a glass of soda with a straw in them. The first kid is a boy with dark flat hair and sips soda through the straw with his mouth. The next kid is a boy with standing black hair, he tries in vain to drink with his beak open on each side of the glass. The third kid is a girl with her hair in a bun. She tries to get her beak into the glass which she has put on the floor. The last kid is a boy version of Cueball who slurps his soda through the straw. There is a caption in a frame that breaks the top border of the main frame:]
Charles Darwin
Megan: I gave our kids soda, but the ones with beaks always have trouble drinking it.
Charles Darwin: I've noticed that...
Boy with flat dark hair: Sip sip
Boy with standing black hair and a beak: Crunch
Girl with her hair in a bun and a beak: Peck peck
Cueball like kid: Sluurp
[A hairy guy is standing in front of Albert Einstein (with wild hair and a mustache), who is holding one hand to his head and has a clock in his other hand. Behind them is a train, with a locomotive at the front and a wagon behind that stretches beyond the frame. Another hairy guy has his head out of the front window of the wagon and is flashing a light towards the other two. In the next three windows can be seen passengers, two with Cueball like heads and one with hair. There is a caption in a frame that breaks the top border of the main frame:]
Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein: I wish your twin brother would stop shining lights at us from that train. I can barely see my clock!
Albert Einstein: ...Wait!


This comic appeared on xkcd's ten-year anniversary.

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Umm, why is there a "citation needed" when stating that beaks are not a typical property of human children! 10:43, 23 January 2021 (UTC)

Did you click on the link in the citation needed? It's a joke Danish (talk) 14:29, 23 January 2021 (UTC)

Needs to explain who Lise Meitner is - I'd never heard of her, she's not on a level with the others in public consciousness. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Using Marie Skłodowska Curie (instead of Lise Meitner) would be more understandable - both of them made groundbreaking discoveries in radioactivity research and Ms Curie is definitely more famous than Ms Meitner. But the author probably did not want to join everyone else in using Ms Curie as "the only one token lady scientist" - as discussed in 896: Marie Curie, where Lise Meitner (as well as Emmy Noether) is mentioned.-- 07:52, 30 September 2015 (UTC)
Never let it be said that XKCD doesn't educate! (I think it's a good thing to have used Lise as the example. If everyone knows just about Marie Curie but few people know Lise Meitner, having read the comic they now know two influential women in physics, twice as many as before! Compare and contrast others such as Florence Nightingale and Rosalind Franklin. Ada Lovelace and Dame Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley.) Also, can anyone think of an observation that Marie could have made that wasn't what she did anyway, i.e. the ability of an electrometer to measure radiation, or that pitchblende is more radioactive than uranium.
Reading the wiki article about Dame Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley, I suspect that being woman in man-dominated field was her only notable accomplishment. Not comparable with Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who was at worst second programmer ever and discovered first computer bug. -- Hkmaly (talk) 11:45, 30 September 2015 (UTC)
But I assume you'd probably not heard of her, before just now, so it works as the example I was trying to give as a comparison to the fame of Lord Byron's daughter. I was actually tempted to use Joan Clarke, but doubtless everyone here has seen The Imitation Game if they didn't know about her already. And then there's Grace Hopper, if you want to talk about the term "computer bug". (Meanwhile Sophie Wilson is probably also probably just too niche, and British, to be worth a mention if you didn't think Steve was good enough.) 15:15, 30 September 2015 (UTC)
Anyway, who do you think element 109 was named after? ;) 10:05, 30 September 2015 (UTC)

Does anyone know who "John and Mildred" might be? --Lou Crazy (talk) 09:13, 30 September 2015 (UTC)

May Mildred be Mildred Lager? An "american pioneer of natural foods and health food", but there's no mention of "John" in this article. 11:19, 30 September 2015 (UTC)
I doubt it since Mildred Larger was born after Darwin's death. I was wondering too who they might be, but I'm coming up empty. Djbrasier (talk) 12:47, 30 September 2015 (UTC)

I'd like to point out that Newton really was inspired by watching apple fall, that isn't a myth. The myth is that he was actually hit by the apple. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton#Apple_incident KingSupernova (talk) 12:17, 30 September 2015 (UTC)

according to the german wikipedia, today's the tenth birthday of xkcd. i wonder if there's a connection between that and this strip's title... 14:43, 30 September 2015 (UTC)

This comic seems to be about our desire to have neat stories that explain scientific discoveries. Each panel has an increasingly ridiculous story that explains a "Moment of Inspiration". Bartash (talk) 16:27, 30 September 2015 (UTC)

The phrase "Hey Lise" seems like a possible Simpsons reference? 18:03, 30 September 2015 (UTC)

Since she is called Lisa Simpson not Lise, and since Meitner is called Lise I do not see this at all...--Kynde (talk) 17:41, 7 October 2015 (UTC)

This comic may or may not be inspired by SMBC http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2353 19:52, 1 October 2015 (UTC)

The explanation says Darwin had understood Mendel's work on genetics. I understand that there is no evidence he read Mendel's work, or understood the implications it had for the theory of evolution. I know some have claimed he had some version of Mendel's work in his papers when he died, but this appears to be disputed and I have never seen any evidence. Considering the profound implications Medelian inheritance would have on the theory I'd have thought Darwin would have mentioned it if he was aware...Magdalen (talk) 19:25, 2 October 2015 (UTC) Reference for the Darwin Mendel situation: http://members.shaw.ca/mcfetridge/darwin.html Magdalen (talk) 19:41, 2 October 2015 (UTC)

Yes I agree that this is also what can be read on the wiki page for Mendel (at the bottom of this paragraph on Gregor_Mendel#Experiments_on_plant_hybridization. I will alter the explanation. But it is though correct that he worried about inbreeding according to the page on Darwins children. --Kynde (talk) 18:51, 7 October 2015 (UTC)

This was confusing because I know too much history of science. The Darwin family's fortune came from the porcelain business--both Charles and his wife Emma were descendants of the famous Wedgewood family. Having porcelain mentioned in the Meitner panel but not the Darwin panel threw me off. Nitpicking (talk) 12:57, 13 January 2022 (UTC)