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The Talk (smbc-comics.com)
448 points by based2 on Dec 15, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments

I'd like to see more complex topics explained this way. Imagine an organic chemistry comic novel!

I think people make a lot of topics seem way more complicated than they need to be, probably to make themselves feel important.

In that case, I recommend "The Manga Guide to ..." series. [1]

I haven't read all of them, but they're a good attempt. (If you enjoy or can tolerate the quirkiness of japanese manga style.)

Check out The Manga Guide to Databases


or The Manga Guide to Statistics


or The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra


[1] https://www.nostarch.com/manga

From the top Amazon review on The Manga Guide to Databases:

"STORY: A friend loaned me this book to show her, so I gave it to her and asked her to try it. If she read the first 10 pages and it was boring, she should stop. If she liked it, she could keep it until she was done. She opened it on the spot and was 20 pages in before she realized she still was standing in the middle of our kitchen. One day later, she was finished and said it was "cool" and that she liked it.

I asked her if she learned anything or if it was just a story and she started talking. She said a little bit and talked about tables and how information is stored in columns and rows. She talked in a 9 year old's language and vocabulary, but basically explained to me the concept and benefits of centralized data stored in a single database. She made a couple other comments whose specifics I can't remember, but clearly articulated database ideas. It was somewhat surreal hearing these things come from a 3rd grader's mouth. She didn't feel like she had learned very much. I told her I probably could count on my fingers how many people at my work (300 people total - manufacturing industry, not IT) knew more about databases than she did, based on what she had finished telling me."

Thanks for the links! I have to take Linear Algebra after this winter break and the manga guide to Linear Algebra looks like it could be a good primer to my course.

Make sure you pick up Axler's "Linear Algebra Done Right". It is my definite pick for someone entering the topic. And the second edition has a solutions manual floating around, which is very useful for practice (more importantly, every theorem proof in a math book is the solution to a practice problem...).

It might be deeper: if one has poor understanding of a subject, one will do a poor job of explaining it. I find that usually manifests in more complex explanations than otherwise, if only because I haven't yet figured out the general cases (and so must compensate with more exceptions).

I really enjoy The Illustrated Guide to Law.


The Cartoon Guide to Genetics is terrific. I remember the material in there because it's presented so well.

I'm a huge fan of the Cartoon Guide to Statistics. I imagine all Larry Gonick's books are worth a read:


> I'd like to see more complex topics explained this way.

The rubber duck strikes again.


I don't see what this has to do with rubber ducking.

While I really enjoyed the comic, I don't think that it would actually explain anything to someone who had only been reading about quantum mechanics in some popular science articles.

well it explains something, but a comic only goes so far

A comic can go a lot farther if it actually tries to explain things instead of joking. For example, interference can be easily explained in comic with waves drawn upon one another.

However, I'm very glad that SMBC sticks to the wonderful humour and I certainly don't want the author to change the comic. Just take it for what it is: a humour for those who already know about the topic, and don't pretend it's educational.

It's a fact often established that people whose work is incomprehensible are held in high regard.

Heh heh, I like the dig at Penrose at the end.

(Only because I used to argue the exact same thing with my dad when I was a teen, and we had both read his books, and I have a human bias that when I read something that agrees with me, I smile, feel vindicated, and don't think about it further.)

Scott has talked about Penrose's books and ideas several times, one of them in direct conversation with him: http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=2756 http://www.scottaaronson.com/democritus/lec10.5.html

(ex) Nuclear physicist here. I wish I had had this explanation at the start of my quantum mechanics courses.

For a more in-depth, but still funny and entertaining, explanation of quantum computing check out 'Quantum Computing Since Democritus' by Scott Aaronson, the co-author of this comic.

For the first time viewers: don't miss to hover over the cartoon (or on the iOS, long press on the image):

"Somewhere in the multiverse, there's a superior universe where all comics are this dorktastic."

And the big red button at the end:

"Out-nerd me now, Randall!"


And more to read: Scott Aaronson's "Making of The Talk":


Yeah, I pressed that button, as one does at the end of SMBC comics, and was momentarily very startled.

Yes! I actually lol'd when I saw the dig at xkcd!

I didn't understand any of that.

I understood some of those words. 5/5. Would read again.

On the scale of, "Scientists keep their discoveries hidden," to, "Overly simplified explanations abound in order to 'popularize' science," we've definitely gone too far the other way. Of course the only remedy then is more precise explanation. Favorited.

Was that last frame a dig at Douglas Hofstadter?

Zach, I think you may have finally surpassed Randall.

No, it's a dig at roger penrose

...Ah. I should have known.

The even bigger problem is that current quantum computers, if indeed they are, are not heading down the universal quantum computer route, but instead heading down the route of adiabatic quantum annealing. I mean if you can explain that to your kids, could you explain it to me?

I would take issue with various claims in the comic anway. The idea that quantum mechanics is a "generalisation of probability" is itself a simplification. The wave function can be used to derive the probability P=Ψ.Ψ*, but it's not probability per se. It does neatly encapsulate why the Copenhagen Interpretation of the wavefunction leads to a lot of magical thinking about what the wave function represents.

The co-author Scott Aaronson has a chapter in his lecture notes about that "suspect" subject which does a good job of motivating it: http://www.scottaaronson.com/democritus/lec9.html His whole book on the subject "Quantum Computing Since Democritus" is excellent and worth a read.

I'm starting to become skeptical of our understanding of quantum mechanics because we completely discredited a common theory with only one experiment over a hundred years ago:


We never recreated the experiment again until Ernest Wilbur Silvertooth did about one-hundred years later in the 1980s. He found a possible connection to the Ether, but by this point every scientist in the world committed to thinking the opposite; they didn't care for his findings.

People say GR works, but they keep running into weird situations where they have to keep fudging their mathematical models -- none of the equations work together, i.e. no unified field theory, -- and everyone is too afraid to suggest we've been approaching it all wrong.

God, I love how political science has become: funding, faith, pride... The world didn't care for Galileo's theories, either: it turned their whole world upside-down.

Is that where they explain particle-wave duality, or is that where they pretend it's not an issue?

If you regard particle-wave duality as an "issue" that needs to be "solved," (other than perhaps "duality" being a poor choice of term) you're really approaching this from a strange and incorrect perspective.

The wikipedia article you link tells the exact opposite story, with more than 30 (did not count) experiments that followed until 2009.

The information present in your writing doesn't show the basic understanding of the topic, as soon as you claim that Michelson-Morley wasn't repeated many times.

Ever tried to grasp how the detection of the gravitational waves already worked?

the article you linked says the experiment has been "repeated many times with increasing sensitivity" in the early 1900s

The point is so much of our conclusions are based off of these null hypothesis. It's like saying the iPhone will never succeed because so many other "smart" devices at the time were terrible.

> The point is so much of our conclusions are based off of these null hypothesis.

Quantum mechanics, special relativity, and general relativity (I'm not sure which ones you're objecting to here) all have strong predictive power. The fact that we can build extensions of these theories and see experimental validation of those theories is itself support for the underlying principles. With quantum mechanics, you can explain atomic spectra, crystal field splitting, aromaticity and antiaromaticity, vagaries of chemical bonding--and that's only in the domain of chemistry. Special relativity can also explain, say, why there is a stable Pb²⁺ ion.

That's like saying computers and laptops are so great -- we'll never need smart phones. Sure, classical devices / models are great and proven true, -- but that's still a limited view based on previous biases.

I know that's a terrible analogy, but proving GR kinda works doesn't really disprove the Ether, either.

The value of scientific theories is their ability to make accurate predictions. Their reflection of the underlying physics and mechanics of the universe is a secondary concern--and indeed, most likely all of our theories are wrong by that metric. But if we can't tell that our theories are wrong by experiment, then the fact that they are wrong is only of philosophical importance.

Quantum mechanics is an ur-example. Fundamentally, it's a set of mathematical equations only some of which have clear physical interpretations. What does the wavefunction actually represent, for example? To make matters worse, it also relies on mathematics that are well outside the comfort zone of most lay people--complex probabilities and renormalizable groups, for example (the latter caused consternation even within the physics community before the underlying mathematical basis was more rigorously developed). That leads popular description to rely on analogy that is at times more obfuscatory than helpful. But the underlying mathematics is quite well-understood, and we've built successful validations across chemistry, physics, and biology. As Feynman said, it's the most well-validated theory in history.

If you want to get a new scientific theory established, you need to do one of two things. The more common scenario is that you explain something that wasn't explainable beforehand. This is basically what quantum mechanics did. The less common scenario is that you find a much simpler but equally powerful explanation--this is what special relativity was.

The point of the Michelson-Morely experiment was to find the Earth's motion relative to the inherent reference frame of the universe (the ether). With the discovery of Lorentz invariance, Einstein's relativity theory basically said "it doesn't matter, any reference frame will do." Given also the many wavelength-dependent properties of light meant that you couldn't reuse the wave equations to explain electrodynamics, there was no reason to keep the ether around. Sure, you can build theories on the ether, but you're not getting anything simpler or more accurate by doing so, so what's the point?

What's the point? It's about understanding the universe! If the ether exists then it could mean an open-system exists in the universe, i.e. the big bang is still happening, -- or the laws of thermodynamics, i.e. entropy, are not set in stone because structure can be created with an open-system, -- or even general laws of physics: free energy because an open-system exists.

The implications are phenomenal, -- we could be in the presence of something HUGE, -- but people seem to rather "know for a fact" that we live in an empty vacuum devoid of anything but relics of a big bang.

You seem to argue from a premise that there is an absolute truth that is discoverable without obscene expenditure in research, and that getting closer to the truth is likely to cause great advancements on our quality of life.

I dispute that premise; it seems to me unlikely that we know anything from certain, and it seems to be that expanding our understanding of the world has had diminishing returns; fire has had greater returns than agriculture, and that engineering, than Newtonian mechanics, that than relativity and quantum mechanics, and so on.

From the above observation of the utility of scientific discoveries, if Ether theory nevertheless is closer to how the world functions, it seems very unlikely, and the conditions that enable it to exhibit its characteristics seem so alien to our present way of life that it is unlikely that funding research in such a direction gives better expected returns than research into other questions.

Has Ether theory made any novel predictions that have been verified experimentally?

We have evidence showing General Relativity is true, we have the Michelson–Morley experiment showing that there is no "aether wind" predicted by the Ether theory. Do you have any experiments supporting the Ether?

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