1904: Research Risks

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Research Risks
The 1919 Great Boston Molasses Flood remained the deadliest confectionery containment accident until the Canadian Space Agency's 2031 orbital maple syrup delivery disaster.
Title text: The 1919 Great Boston Molasses Flood remained the deadliest confectionery containment accident until the Canadian Space Agency's 2031 orbital maple syrup delivery disaster.


This is a comparison of the possibility of the subjects of various sciences being a threat to humanity. It can either be an autonomous threat to the local population (i.e. by escape from a lab), or as part of a supervillain's scheme to rule the world.

In general, areas of study that could be used by supervillains, but are unlikely to "break free" refer to technologies that are unlikely to be self-propagating or self-maintaining, but could be used as weapons or for some other form of control. Subjects that could break free, but are unlikely to be used by supervillains are all living organisms (which could presumably breed and multiply without human intervention), but which have little potential as weapons. Areas of study that fall in both categories are either more controllable forms of biology (microbiology, genetic engineering), forms of technology that could become self-propagating (robotics), or a study where a release could be dangerous without being self-propagating (chemistry).

The category of a low risk of either could, of course, contain many fields of study, as most research fields have limited potential for weaponry and little danger of going out of control on a large scale.

See the chart below for detailed explanations of each scatter point.

There have so far been several similar comics with such scatter plots. See for instance 1242: Scary Names, 1468: Worrying, 1501: Mysteries and 1701: Speed and Danger.

The title text is related to the Molasses Storage entry at the bottom left of the chart, and references the Great Molasses Flood, also known as the Great Boston Molasses Flood. It occurred on January 15, 1919 in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts (the state in which Randall lives). A large molasses storage tank burst and a wave of molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph (56 km/h), killing 21 and injuring 150. The joke in the title text is that in 2031 (14 years after the release of this comic) the Canadian Space Agency has an even more serious disaster, which will be known as the orbital maple syrup delivery disaster. The title text claims that this disaster then became the deadliest confectionery containment accident, thus killing more than 21 people.


Risk of Breaking Free Risk of Supervillain Research field Research Risks Comments
6% 90% Prosthetics Cyborgs A large number of villains in media have had augmentative and non-augmentative prosthetics for various reasons. However, there's very little risk of individual prosthetic limbs getting loose and terrorizing people.
21% 83% Neuroscience Mind Control Neuroscience is the study of the human brain. While the greatest risk in this field is the danger that mad scientists will adapt its findings for nefarious purposes, horror movies will attest that there is always a chance that brains will break out of their labs and perpetrate violence of their own accord.
2% 76% Laser Optics Something like Laser Weapon System. Or a powerful laser could be used to cut a hero in two as in Goldfinger. See Directed-energy weapon. Lasers, like prosthetics, are unlikely to do much damage without people to wield them, though.
36% 77% Pharmacology Poisons, drug dealing Pharmacology studies the effects of medicines and drugs. There are scores of instances where supervillains attempt to use some sort of drug to incapacitate the hero or the general populace, or may use drug trade as a method of generating revenue. It's possible that a laboratory accident may also result in a new or altered creature which can proceed to go on a rampage.
19% 69% Materials Science Villains: New materials used for villainous purposes. Escape: new materials turning out to be alive and also evil Adamantium, Vibranium, Kryptonite, etc. Alternatively, soil samples may contain predatory life form.
24% 62% Sociology Tyranny, manipulation. Sociology studies the development and interactive patterns of human societies. While it's unlikely (though hardly impossible) that societies will "escape" and wreak havoc and destruction, this field is very useful to the supervillain that seeks to ingratiate him/herself with people, or otherwise establish their power via Machiavellian means.
5% 57% History Supplemental research, historical negationism History mostly consists of artifacts, data and records, which are unlikely to break free.[citation needed] A particular subject of history, however, can be of use to a supervillain--for example, one might adapt the methods of previous successful dictators and learn from the errors of unsuccessful dictators to fulfill one's goals. Alternatively, after achieving dictatorial rule, a villain might alter history in order to consolidate their power.
36% 53% Psychology Manipulation, Hannibal Lecter Psychology studies human mentality. It contains the topic of "memetic hazards" (information bytes that do some sort of harm to the viewer--e.g., propaganda) which could "break out" into the local population. The same supervillainous possibilities as sociology apply.
73% 95% Robotics Villains: Robot minions. Escape: evil robots, nanobots Robots are minions of villains in many occasions, and research on it could be used to further power them up. Apart from supervillains, popular tropes include robots gaining sentience and killing everything, or nanobots going rogue and devouring everything in their path.
92% 90% Genetic Engineering Villains: Modified, super powered minions. Escape: Modified life forms See Gene drive. Genetic engineering is generally the source of modern monster movie creatures, and the dangers of GMO food are often debated. Meanwhile, it's become common practice for villains to have an army of genetically altered superhumans at their disposal, or an array of useful monsters created via genetic engineering.
61% 77% Chemistry Explosives, corrosives, mutagens Villains could obviously use certain chemicals, like nitroglycerin or chlorine trifluoride, to explode things and wreak general havoc. They could also use unspecified chemicals to modify creatures into monsters to do their bidding, or such monsters could be accidentally produced in a lab, escaping to threaten the locals.
97% 81% Microbiology Lethal diseases See for instance 12 Monkeys. Whether the microbes escape on their own (which Randall implies is all-but-inevitable) or are employed by a supervillain, the outcome is similarly horrifying.
5% 41% Geology Earthquake machines Geology is the study of rocks. Scores below average on the supervillain scale, since aside from the odd supervillain attempting to cause earthquakes, geology is not highly useful to evildoers. It's also very unlikely that rocks will escape and terrorize the world, since they don't tend to move very much.
9% 31% Linguistics 1984 Newspeak Aside from the possibility that people in general or supervillains in particular will create deliberately misleading/manipulative language to achieve their purposes, linguistics doesn't pose too much of a threat.
16% 22% Paleontology Reviving dinosaurs and other such prehistoric creatures. Study of fossils. Reviving dinosaurs isn't exactly good for human survival. Aside from this possibility, though, the majority of dinosaurs aren't terribly dangerous, being very dead.
6% 12% Astronomy Asteroid impact A villain could divert an asteroid towards Earth. Randall also rates them as unlikely to "break free"; this is likely because asteroids are already "free" in space, because the risk of them "threatening the local population" is very real.
33% 12% Molasses Storage Flood Breaking free chance is medium low as molasses did "escape" at least once in history. See Great Molasses Flood, as referenced in the title text.
7% 4% Dentistry Biting as an attack method Teeth are neither likely to escape on their own, nor terribly useful to villains.
70% 43% Botany Man-eating plants, invasive species Plants are commonly used in horror films where they mutate and eat everything.
93% 41% Entomology Disease, famine, flesh-eating bugs Entomology is the study of insects. Insects are small and can often escape through even small cracks, and are known for carrying diseases or destroying crops. They could also mutate into terrifying threats - see for example the movie Empire of the Ants. Entomology is also referenced in 1012: Wrong Superhero.
60% 33% Mycology Disease, famine, mind-control Mycology is the study of fungi. Fungi cannot move very far on their own, but their spores could easily spread, therefore, escape probability has been deemed medium high.
91% 26% Marine Biology Sharknado, Jaws, Cthulhu Villains may keep a tank of sharks in order to dispose of opposition; however, as the linked comic implies, it is difficult to control what sharks will do (they might simply swim away). Randall implies that it's more likely that marine creatures will escape on their own and threaten local swimmers.
79% 16% Ornithology Escape: predatory birds; pesky invasive species. Villains may sometimes keep a bird of prey as a pet Ornithology is the study of birds. The ability to fly makes escape easier for birds than, say, rocks, and it's possible that certain escaped species of birds may threaten the local population directly (by pecking/diving at them) or indirectly (perhaps they're an invasive species, capable of outcompeting native birds and unbalancing the local ecosystem).

Note : percentages refer to the position of the center of the smallest enclosing rectangle around each name. 0% and 100% correspond to the low and high arrow tips, respectively.


[A chart with two crossing lines with double arrows. Each arrow is labeled:]
Y axis top: High
Y axis bottom: Low
X axis left: Low
X axis right: High
[Near each of the "high" ends of the two axis there is a label written in gray, with a line pointing to the relevant axis:]
Y axis: Risk of your research being used by a supervillain for world domination
X axis: Risk of the thing you're studying breaking free from your facility and threatening the local population
[The following points are on the charts upper left quadrant (in reading order):]
Laser Optics
Materials Science
[The following points are on the charts upper right quadrant (in reading order):]
Genetic Engineering
[The following points are on the charts lower left quadrant (in reading order):]
Molasses Storage
[The following points are on the charts lower right quadrant (in reading order):]
Marine Biology


  • The comic initially had the erroneous spelling "Entymology" (possibly a mistaken mix-up between etymology and entomology, similar to 1012: Wrong Superhero). This was later changed to the correct "Entomology".
  • The SSL-Certificate of xkcd expired while this comic was online, causing a non-reachability of the site.

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Entymology? Misspelled "entomology" or (more confusingly) "etymology"? Psychology lower risk than micology? Absolutely hogwash!

The comic has been updated, so it was just a typo. 16:05, 18 October 2017 (UTC)
How do I update picture. Last update always matches first upload for whatever reason --Trimutius (talk) 17:24, 18 October 2017 (UTC)

Molasses storage is misplaced -- should be in the quadrant to its right. See [1]. 21 dead and 150 injured. 14:12, 18 October 2017 (UTC)

Agreed that it did get out and kill people. But only once in something like 200 years and only a few. (Is this where the phrase slower than molasses in January comes from?) I would not expect that this would be a common danger. (unsigned)

Ah, but there was another in 2013 in Honolulu. (I just learned of it from the "See Also" section of the Wikipedia page on the Great Molasses Flood.) That one didn't kill any people (though it was an ecological disaster) but it speaks to risk. Anyway, the item is in the right quadrant. Arguably is should be further to the right, but also arguably not, since conducting experiments in the area could lead to more accidents.Jqavins (talk) 16:08, 18 October 2017 (UTC)

Only, even assuming there's such a thing as molasses storage research, it's unlikely that your lab is going to contain life-threatening quantities of molasses. It's not as if a few liters escaping could reproduce and turn into thousands of tons. 16:27, 18 October 2017 (UTC)
Personally, I'd be very surprised if there wasn't research into the optimum large-scale storage of foodstuffs, given the potential high-value losses that could occur. Perhaps there might be something here on it? 16:30, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

Plus how many times have robots escaped from a lab in real life? 12:11, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

I think entymology is a reference to 1012 14:50, 18 October 2017 (UTC)

I think the title text may have a somewhat humorous naming scheme derived from the Great Molasses Flood Wikipedia discussion page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Great_Molasses_Flood There's a lengthy discussion about changing the name from "Boston Molasses Disaster" to "Great Molasses Flood". I noticed that Randall used both approaches to describing the events in the title text, but maybe that was a coincidence.

I am not impressed. Movie supervillains often use paleontology (dinosaurs), geology (volcano/earthquake) and astronomy (comets). Also, there is a tendency to pair marine biology with laser-optics. And, to actually dominate the world, a real-life villain will probably need to use cunning linguistics at some level or the other. --Nialpxe, 2017. (Arguments welcome)

I had the same initial reaction, but note how Randall didn't write "movie supervillain", but just "supervillain", so you should only take into account what is currently feasible in technology state-of-the-art, or what we can reasonably foresee for the next decade or so. I don't see any madman being able to revive (and control!) dinosaurs, capture a comet or trigger an earthquake in the next 10-20 years. As for shark-mounted lasers, they are cool to show off and inspire fear, but hardly useful to achieve world domination by themselves. 16:18, 18 October 2017 (UTC)
When we get into the realm of supervillainy - especially given XKCD's history - we're almost certainly talking fiction. And if we're talking fiction, Randall's forgotten about Moonraker, where astronomy and dentistry both play a significant role in the supervillain's plot, and should thus rate higher on the vertical scale. 02:42, 19 October 2017 (UTC)
Comets? What about black holes at relativistic speeds? Although those tend to be hard to see ... -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:39, 19 October 2017 (UTC)
I think it's safe to assume that most supervillains have read 1883 are not going to use geology in that way. -- 07:30, 21 October 2017 (UTC)

Looks like the "Research Risk" column is just a comment field open for speculation -- can we merge Comments and Research Risk into one column? Spongebob (talk) 03:34, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

I'd suggest it'd be better to have one column for the supervillain risk factors, and one for the escaped research risk factors. 08:47, 19 October 2017 (UTC)
I'd suggest that it would be interesting to have a few examples (movies/TV/real) listed beneath a sentence or two in each of those columns. --Angel (talk) 13:38, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

Interestingly, I referenced the Great Molasses Flood in a tangential comment to comic 1900 - is Randall now browsing this site to find inspiration for new comics? ;o) 08:53, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

I feel like the linguistics section is missing an opportunity for a Snow Crash joke... 10:38, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

Surely the risk of escape from Linguistics should be high - language is inherently hard to contain and control, and often ends up infecting the world with dangerous rubbish like 'solutioning synergistic opportunities going forward'. 11:34, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

"Fungi cannot move..." - tell that to this guy. 11:43, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

If Marathon Man is anything to judge by, dentistry can be used by a superillain in his bid to take over the world... just not to actually conquer the world. 14:57, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

What about prosthetic robotic dentistry? I refer you to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chattery_Teeth_(short_story) 15:05, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

What about prosthetic robotic dentistry on insects? That would be truly terrifying. 16:26, 19 October 2017 (UTC)

I found my Ph.D. work about lanthanide organometallics to be rather unyieldy for supervillainry...and that's why I'm studying computer science now :-) 16:19, 21 October 2017 (UTC)

Geology rates low for risk of studied object to break free and threaten local population!? Did Randall miss the high tension around Norways 'the man'? -- 17:50, 21 October 2017 (UTC)

Paleontology? Are velociraptors breaking free not a big deal?

The comments for Botany should probably include reference to the supervillain Poison Ivy 17:20, 3 May 2022 (UTC)Dentistry should be higher up on used by villain since some villains weaponize their teeth (Anjuro Katagiri for example), especially if its sharp.

I realize it's incredibly trite to point this out, but there are billions of very much alive dinosaurs. They're members of the clade Aves. Nitpicking (talk) 01:06, 6 May 2022 (UTC)

Oh come on, we canadians value our maple syrup far too much to be as careless to have an orbital maple syrup delivery result in a catastrophe. There would be at least six failsafes in place even if we were confident nothing would go wrong. --Tiny Desk Engineer (talk) "My user page can't be vandalized if it never existed" 22:28, 26 January 2023 (UTC)