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Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Cueball (physics), Hair Bun Girl (biology), and Megan (chemistry) appear to be on a talk show called Degree-Off, hosted by Hairy, where representatives of different fields, try to explain why their field is the best and why to get a degree in their field. The title "Degree-Off" is a portmanteau of "degree", as in the recognized completion of studies at a school or university, and "face-off", a direct confrontation between two people or groups. Since there are three participants, this is not a true face-off, unless Megan, who does not speak, is not counted.

The host asks the physicist Cueball to go first. He light-heartedly begins to tell, what appears to be long story, beginning with a Richard Feynman anecdote. During the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, Richard Feymann got bored because of the isolation and started learning lock picking on the secret documents safes. Using these new skills, he played lots of pranks on his colleagues, like leaving notes and spooking them into believing there was a spy among them (which, of course, there was). He finishes his case with a quote from Ernest Rutherford, implying that his speech was quite long and winding. The quote communicates the idea that physics is the only fundamental framework, so that the job of chemists, biologists and other scientist simply is to catalog and systematize observations ("collect stamps") on phenomena too complicated to presently be fully described in terms of physics. This idea was already used earlier by Randall in 435: Purity.

The biologist, Hair Bun Girl, goes next, showing, with a graph (see below), that the field of biology has helped reduce disease. She then goes on to claim that the heroes in biology (the part known as Medicine) has even "slain" one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Originally these were Conquest, War, Famine and Death. But, mainly in popular culture, Conquest has been renamed to the one she refers to: Pestilence.

This graph shows the death rate from infectious disease in USA, similar to that shown in the comic presented by Hair Bun Girl, as both have the range of 1900-2000. The spike is attributable to the 1918 flu pandemic. The graph has been published in this paper Trends in Infectious Disease Mortality in the United States During the 20th Century.

Crude Infectious Disease Mortality Rate in the United States from 1900 Through 1996.gif

Hair Bun Girl then goes on to directly accuses Cueball, i.e. the physicists, of creating a new Horseman to replace the one slain by the biologist. She claims that they gathered in the desert to do so. Given Cueball's opening remark, she must be referring to the creation of the first atomic bomb, which was built and tested in the New Mexico desert. After the test detonation of the first nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the the Los Alamos National Laboratory, found himself quoting the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"---thus the creation of a new Horseman.

It has for some time been clear that Randall is a big fan of Terry Pratchett, but this became evident when the famous author died in March 2015, see 1498: Terry Pratchett. Pratchett used the Four Horsemen several times in his books, although mainly Death, in the Discworld series, which was first featured in 625: Collections. Especially in Good Omens do these four horsemen have a prominent part. In this book, Pestilence, has retired after the discovery of Penicillin, and he has then been replaced by Pollution.

In the title text the biologist goes on to even shout at Cueball (All caps letters), as she mocks the physicist for not being "harder" after all their condescending towards the squishy (soft) sciences, referring to the concepts of hard and soft sciences and how physicists sometimes label all other sciences as "soft" and demean them. In 435: Purity, the only subject presented as "purer" than physics is mathematics, and even math is then degraded compared to physics in the title text.

Due to the obvious Terry Pratchett references as mentioned above, there have been some discussion about if the all-capital-letters in the title text should indicate that it was Death from the Discworld that spoke these lines (he always speaks in Small caps). However, the title text is clearly a continuation of the biologist remark and would make no sense if suddenly spoken by Death.

It is known that Randall thinks that biology is superior to physics, as also seen in 520: Cuttlefish.


[Hairy is acting as the host of a TV talk show, Degree-Off. Cueball, Hair Bun Girl, and Megan are acting as representatives of Phys (Physics), Bio (Biology), and Chem (Chemistry) respectively. They each stand behind their own Lectern with the respective subject label.]
Hairy: Welcome to the Degree-Off, where we determine which field is the best! Physics, wanna go first?
Cueball: Sure! I'd like to tell the story of Richard Feynman's Manhattan project lockpicking pranks...
Cueball: ...and as he said, "all science is either physics or stamp collecting."
Cueball: Thank you.
Hairy: Great! Bio, you wanna go next?
Hair Bun Girl: Okay.
[A graph labeled "Per 100,000 is shown above Hair Bun Girl]
Hair Bun Girl: This is a graph of the death rate from infectious disease in this country.
[Hair Bun Girl raising her left hand]
Hair Bun Girl: The heroes of my field have slain one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
[Hair Bun Girl pointing at Cueball]
Hair Bun Girl: While the heroes of your field gathered in the desert to create a new one.
Cueball: ...Jeez, what the hell? I thought this was supposed to be fun and lighthearted!
Hair Bun Girl: You must have been thinking of stamp collecting.

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