1736: Manhattan Project

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Manhattan Project
On the plus side, we definitely killed that cancer over there, even if we caused a bunch more everywhere else.
Title text: On the plus side, we definitely killed that cancer over there, even if we caused a bunch more everywhere else.


The Manhattan Project was a big, expensive, secret research and development project that produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II. Because of the unprecedented scale of the project, which involved some of the brightest minds in science and the efforts of thousands of people, "Manhattan Project" has become a metaphor for any kind of all-out effort involving the top minds of a discipline to achieve a single objective, often expressed as the phrase "We need a new Manhattan Project".

The day before this comic was released the following announcement was made: Microsoft will ‘solve’ cancer within the next 10 years by treating it like a computer virus. And on the day this comic was released (but probably after the comic was released) there was a press conference where Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan Pledge $3 Billion to Fighting Disease (all disease in general.) These projects hardly approach the scale of the Manhattan Project, but they (at least the Microsoft announcement) could be the reason this comic came out when it did.

In this comic, Ponytail starts by making the suggestion that they should create a "new Manhattan Project" to cure cancer. Taken figuratively, this would imply a heavily-funded, massive collaborative effort involving the best scientists in the field of cancer research, and is not an unreasonable idea in itself. However, she and her fellow scientists all take the idea literally instead, and the New Manhattan Project ends up actually developing a nuclear bomb. In the final panel, Ponytail appears to realize that this runs somewhat counter to her original objective[citation needed] (not to mention is redundant, as the original Manhattan Project already invented the nuclear bomb).

The title text hastily justifies this mistake by claiming a partial success; that their nuclear detonation did, indeed, kill all cancer within the blast radius of the explosion. However, it fails to mention that the blast would also kill everything else as well. It also admits that the explosion would most likely end up causing more cancer due to the ionizing radiation and fallout. The title text is reminiscent of both the main comic and the title text of 1217: Cells.

This was the first time since 1355: Airplane Message, more than two years prior, that Randall mentions cancer (on a banner!), a recurring subject on xkcd, but mainly around the time when his then-fiancée (now wife) was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in October of 2010. Interestingly enough there are only two facts in that previous comic, and that other fact (from the title text) was referenced the week before this comic came out in 1732: Earth Temperature Timeline. But it could be a coincidence.

The Manhattan Project was the scene of 809: Los Alamos, and a story from the site is being told in 1520: Degree-Off. According to 980: Money the Manhattan project used $24,400,000,000. Nuclear weapons in general has been a recurrent subject on xkcd and their invention was also mentioned last week in 1732: Earth Temperature Timeline around 1950 CE. The previous comic with a similar mushroom cloud was 1655: Doomsday Clock, and in that comics explanation at least three other "recent" comics about such weapons of mass destruction are mentioned.


[A five panel layout with each panel slightly narrower than the one before.]
[Ponytail holding her arms out speaks to Cueball.]
Ponytail: What we need to cure cancer is a new Manhattan Project!
[Cueball stands next to Ponytail on podium with a banner overhead. Ponytail is lifting her arms high up and addresses a huge crowd below the podium. Faces disappear into the distance, but at the podiums edge are four full faces, from left to right they are Hairy, a person with flat hair, a person with white hair and a Cueball-like guy.]
Banner: Research Initiative
[Cueball and Megan sitting behind a desk looking out and Ponytail standing to the right facing away from them wear laboratory goggles and laboratory coats. There are several Erlenmeyer flasks on the desk and Ponytail is also holding such a flask. There are other glass wares on the desk.]
[Megan, holding a hand in front of her face, Cueball and Ponytail, all wearing some kind of glasses strapped around the back of their heads stand behind two chest-height barriers looking into the distance where a large mushroom cloud rises high in the air with the typical ring around the stem below the main cloud and smoke/dust surrounding the bottom of the stem. It is much higher in the image than the three mountains in the left background.]
[Close up of Ponytail, as she faces to the right. She is wearing very dark protection glasses, looking like those used for looking at the sun during a solar eclipse.]
Ponytail: Wait.

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The Manhattan Project employed up to 139,000 people, so it were not only the top minds, but a huge logistical effort. Sebastian -- 16:58, 21 September 2016 (UTC)

But without the great minds, which also encompasses those who managed to get so many people working together on one project, but mainly the scientist, it would not have succeeded! --Kynde (talk) 19:18, 21 September 2016 (UTC)

Maybe reference to "1217 - Cells" could be added. 19:09, 21 September 2016 (UTC)--Dancsa

Yes for sure, have added it - it is related to the title text --Kynde (talk) 19:18, 21 September 2016 (UTC)

Seems like Randall has been looking at 1355: Airplane Message. The title text was also a fact in 1732 and this is the first cancer comic since that comic and also included text on a banner... ;-) Have added this on all three comics explanations --Kynde (talk) 19:38, 21 September 2016 (UTC)

Is there a need for a new category for Nuclear weapons? And should it then just be called that? --Kynde (talk) 20:16, 21 September 2016 (UTC)

This comic today could have been inspired by an announcement by Microsoft on 20 September 2016 that it will "Cure Cancer by treating it like a computer virus" Stories: independent.co.uk, slashdot. Also, on 21 September (the same day the comic was released), the Chan Zuckerberg foundation announced a $3 billion initiative to "cure all diseases" Story: Slashdot. Either or both of these could be considered Manhattan-like projects. --Johnm4 (talk) 23:47, 21 September 2016 (UTC)

Thanks have included these news stories in the explanation. Feel free to do so another time :-) --Kynde (talk) 12:46, 22 September 2016 (UTC)

In my original google search link ([1]) my point was to show multiple hits for people talking about a new Manhattan Project, for multiple different purposes. It has been replaced with one single instance, which was not the intent. 12:21, 22 September 2016 (UTC)

We usually avoid google links as they can be different in different countries and will change over time. I have reverted again. If you think more of your Google hits are relevant then place a couple more as examples with direct links. --Kynde (talk) 12:46, 22 September 2016 (UTC)
Fair enough. I replaced with the direct links in my first page on google 13:08, 22 September 2016 (UTC)
Maybe a bit over the top, but I will leave it to others to decide if a few could be trimmed away ;-) --Kynde (talk) 13:14, 22 September 2016 (UTC)

The difference between the Manhattan project and cancer cure is that the principles of an atomic bomb were understood in general before the start of the project. All they needed to do was to figure out all the necessary detail and actually implement it in practice. A huge engineering effort but with the roadmap visible at the start of it. On the other hand nobody has a good understanding of the principles of how the cancer works (except maybe that there is more than one way in which it works, and some first glimpses into some of these ways). So there is not even a clear roadmap to the solution. 07:04, 28 September 2016 (UTC)