I think I'm prepared to risk $200 on the theory that the universe is indeed undergoing some kind of fundamental shift when xkcd and I are on the same page on an issue of science, since I almost never understand the geeky math/science gags in this strip.
I don't understand science much beyond the general philosophical overlay, starting with the fact that scientists were once called "natural philosophers" because they were philosophers who sat around thinking about the nature of matter.
Even there, I didn't retain the distinction between Anaximander and Anaximenes any longer than it took to get through the class, but I remembered that some of the natural philosophers had interesting takes on the nature of things and some of them were full of balloon juice.
But they really did come up with some cool ideas. For instance, some guy had himself lowered into a well in North Africa from which he could see the stars during the day, which told him something about how light bends but only to a certain degree. It had to be a well; from the bottom of a canyon, he'd have still seen blue sky above him.
It was probably Ptolemy. Ptolemy is like the Mark Twain of ancient science. If you have a really good quote you can't place, you just attribute it to Mark Twain, who has so many apocryphal quotes attributed to him that one more won't hurt.
And if there is some ancient science thing that is both off the wall and completely brilliant, like lowering yourself into a well to see the night sky during the day? Just say it was Ptolemy. (Or Archimedes, but people will think you're smarter if you say it was Ptolemy.)
The crossover between natural philosophy and modern science came at a time when alchemy was beginning to work well enough that it became a tool for getting grants. It's never been easy to find a sponsor for just screwing around in the lab, but if you tell them you're on the verge of turning lead into gold, you can just watch the florins come flowing in!
(You could still make a pretty good argument for funding by showing a Periodic Table and arguing that, by bombarding lead with atomic baffletrons, you would increase its atomic weight by one and form gold. Just don't use words like "alchemy" or "transmute" in your presentation, because someone at the foundation might recognize them.)
Newton and his contemporaries were not entirely convinced that alchemy wouldn't work. We remember Newton for his coldly scientific Laws of Motion, his math and his theory of gravitation, but he also used to stick sharp objects in his eyes on purpose to check out the little bursts of light it caused on his retinas.
Plus he had a devotion to his mother that would rival Norman Bates, which may not be exactly relevant to his scientific methods but was part of the package that made him, well, a different sort of fellow, different enough to be capable of not accepting explanations of reality without pondering them.
All of which suggests that, while xkcd may have some precise scientific reason to doubt this fabulous announcement, it's enough to know that scientists have always indulged in a fair amount of speculation based in part on carefully constructed theory well-grounded in proven facts, and in part on sticking sharp things in their eyes.
It's also possible to doubt some of these breakthroughs simply by having lived long enough to have seen it all before.
Sometimes, scientists perpetrate outright fraud, like the guy who said people were taking LSD, staring into the sun and going blind. And there was some deal that involved white mice that supposedly had patches of black fur that turned out to be ink. I don't remember what that was supposed to "prove" except that the guy's grant was probably running out and he needed a refill.
Much of it is simply bad science, which encompasses the big cold fusion breakthrough. The hard part about bad science is that you can't always tell how bad it is. Sometimes, like the Korean guy who faked cloning dogs, it's only the actual experiment that is bogus, and the theory is still not only good but practical. And sometimes, as in transmuting lead into gold, the theory is, well, close but needs a lot more work and probably not in any of the directions that have been followed thus far.
The problem with betting $200 on any of this stuff is that you need to bet that they can't replicate it, not that it isn't true, because if the bet depends on proving objective truth, then, yeah, you will get into those discussions of Galileo, plus the money would pass between your great-grandchildren if ever at all.
None of this is to say there aren't things we know. Newton may have been a freak, but his theories of motion, his optics, his theory of gravitation and his math (shut up, Leibniz) are all valid, even though they came long before Pasteur and Lister and that gang started taking the wonder out of science and systematically establishing some pragmatic limits to the things we think we know.
And while some of what is being said about nanotechnology probably falls into the "Korean Dog Cloner" level of speculative science, where it works despite the balloon juice being pumped into it, we also have the moon landings and many other amazing events that are, in the end, practical applications of very basic science.
One of the best tools I ever encountered for helping kids -- or anyone -- understand science was a little cardboard box my junior high science teacher, Mr. Cooper, had in his room. It was taped shut and, on the outside, it said "I am an atom" and invited us to figure out as much as we could about it. You could shake it, you could slowly rotate it, but you couldn't see inside and so you had to manipulate the box and use a combination of observation and imagination in order to try to determine the nature and structure of the "atom."
Years later, he told me what was in there, but I won't spoil it by revealing the secret, except to say that it wasn't a puddingstone and it wasn't a little tiny solar system.
And now for something completely different: Two things that are completely the same.