829: Arsenic-Based Life
Title text: According to a new paper published in the journal Science, reporters are unable to thrive in an arsenic-rich environment.
Three scientists, are worried that the press conference announcing their bacteria discovery be less exciting to the reporters especially because they are expecting news of life on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The researchers decide to try and make the event more exciting, but they don't know how to throw a good party. As a result, they look up advice on the internet, and decide to serve cocktails and hors d'œuvres to fit the theme of the event.
The final panel shows the results, the reporters are dead or dying. It is implied that in order to fit the theme the researchers have laced the food and drinks with arsenic.
Arsenic is a chemical element which is known to be poisonous to humans and most other life forms. In 2010 NASA announced the discovery of bacteria GFAJ-1 and claimed it to be able to sustain itself when starved of phosphorus, by substituting arsenic for a small percentage of its phosphorus. Most scientists did not believe in this and it was disproven in 2012.
The comic draws its humor by picking on both scientists and reporters. It is a common theme in xkcd to show scientists who may be extremely clever within their field, but sometimes lack common sense and are inept at social situations. Reporters are often criticized for over sensationalizing discoveries and hunting for exciting stories.
The words "hors d'oerves" at the comic are just a misspelling by Randall for "hors d'oeuvres" (in French "hors d'œuvre" both singular and plural). The English pronunciation of these words is awr-DURVZ /ɔrˈdɜrvz/, with the R before the V, not after, which explains the mistake. As opposed to the original French pronunciation, where the v and r keep the same order.
The girl with the curly ponytail in this comic is different from the character commonly referred to as Ponytail, the real Ponytail, on the other hand, is actually found among the dying reporters in the final panel.
- [Three people, a curly dark haired girl with a ponytail, Megan and Cueball, stand looking at a laptop screen, which is sitting on a desk. The ponytail girl is pointing at the screen. There is no speak line down to her, but from her posture it must be assumed she does the talking written above the three]
- Ponytailed girl: Our arsenic-based DNA discovery is cool, but these reporters are expecting life on Titan! Our press conference will be such a letdown!
- [The ponytailed girl turns around to face Megan, zooming in so Cueball is not in the frame.]
- Ponytailed girl: Okay, we need to make it more exciting for them. How do you make an event entertaining?
- Megan: Dunno, I suck at parties. Music, I guess?
- [The ponytailed girl turns back around and leans over to start typing on the computer, while the other two look on. Megan puts her hand to her chin.]
- Ponytailed girl: WikiHow says you can "serve cocktails and hors d'œrves that fit the theme of your event."
- Megan: Easy enough!
- [The ponytailed girl stands at a podium behind a lectern ready to deliver the news while Cueball stands amongst the audience with a tray with three drinks glasses. A fourth glass lies at foot of the lectern on the podium. Two Cueball-like guys in the audience is lying dead on the floor, one of them having fallen backwards in his chair, a third Cueball-like guy is still standing but has his hands up to his throat as he is suffocating and finally Ponytail is slumped over in her seat with her head on her chest. One empty chair is still standing.]
- Tobias J. Erb; Patrick Kiefer; Bodo Hattendorf; Detlef Gunter; Julia Vorholt (July 8, 2012). "GFAJ-1 Is an Arsenate-Resistant, Phosphate-Dependent Organism". Science 337 (6093): 467–70. doi:10.1126/science.1218455. PMID 22773139. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
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