2142: Dangerous Fields

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Dangerous Fields
Eventually, every epidemiologist becomes another statistic, a dedication to record-keeping which their colleagues sincerely appreciate.
Title text: Eventually, every epidemiologist becomes another statistic, a dedication to record-keeping which their colleagues sincerely appreciate.


This is a graph of fields of study, ordered by how likely one is to die because of something that that field studies, with mathematics being the least dangerous and gerontology being the most. Gerontology, the scientific study of old age, is shown as much more dangerous than the other fields, so it is far on the right side of the graph. The joke is in the distinction between the danger of studying the thing, and the overall death rate from the thing. Studying aging doesn't put you at much more risk of aging than the general population. However, studying volcanoes is likely to put you in dangerous environments.


  • Mathematics is such a pure non-physical field that the probability of it being the direct cause of death is extremely low. The study of it might cause death through workplace disputes or absent-mindedly wandering in front of traffic while pondering (as in 356: Nerd Sniping). Famously (though likely apocryphally) Hippasus was thrown overboard a ship by Pythagoras for demonstrating irrational numbers. Archimedes was killed for not following an invading soldier's command because he was wrapped up in his own thoughts trying to solve a geometry problem.
  • Astronomy, the study of stars and space. Astronomy is slightly more dangerous than mathematics, though, since it studies physical objects instead of abstract concepts. In addition to meteor or asteroid impacts, astronomical phenomena that might cause death include solar flares, nearby supernovae, distant magnetar quakes, a solar nova (the likelihood of which will increase over the next billion-odd years), perturbations in earth's orbit, increased or decreased solar radiation, and alien invasion. Given that the density of magnetars and potentially hostile alien civilizations in the stellar neighborhood is completely unknown, and not all past mass extinctions are explained, this one might be misplaced a bit. Although these are all rare events, just one could kill all living and potential future astronomers. That non-astronomers would also be affected seems poor consolation. While astronomers do not study aliens, as such—that would be exobiology—some have sought evidence of alien activity.
  • Economics is the study of markets. Markets can kill you by depriving you of goods and services you need to survive. Goods can become unavailable (e.g., cartels, embargos) or unaffordable (through job loss, inflation), in depressions or recessions. The study of such markets usually does not involve great risk, unless the markets are illegal (e.g., illicit drug markets), the economy being studied has put people under great stress, or one's findings are really unpopular.
  • Law in this context refers to the rules people have to follow in society, and given the nature of laws (civil and criminal), the odds that your death is related to law is usually low. Possible causes of death more-or-less directly related would include prosecution for a capital crime, persecution under legal authority (such as being killed by an officer of the law), attack by a guard, or for lack of medical treatment, while incarcerated, or death by exposure after expulsion from one's repossessed or otherwise legally confiscated home. However, when large groups of people are dispossessed, or have the protection of law removed, casualties can be quite high. For instance, the Partition of India in 1947 resulted in 200,000 to 2 million deaths. The laws of the Great Leap Forward contributed to the starvation of tens of millions of Chinese, disproportionally many of them lawyers and law professors. Perhaps most ironically, a lawyer who committed a capital crime in a country that practices capital punishment (such as the United States, China, or Iran), and was executed for it would be directly killed by the thing they study. In 2000, approximately 300,000 died from war and collective violence.
  • Criminology is very similar to law, but is the study of crime, meaning it's more dangerous than just "law." Criminologists may be directly involved with criminals in the course of their studies, increasing their exposure to potentially life-threatening behavior. There were 520,000 deaths from violence (excluding war, suicide, and accidental or incidental deaths resulting from criminal activity) in 2000.
  • Meteorology is the study of weather. Encountering powerful weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, floods, and thunderstorms brings the distinct possibility of injury and death. Curiosity to see a storm in person, or (if working for television news) exposing yourself to the weather event in order to file a report, may expose you to lightning, wind-blown projectiles, cold, water, etc., any of which can negatively affect your survival. Less dramatic weather also kills — hot weather can lead to heatstroke and dehydration. Adverse weather events kill about 100,000 to 200,000 annually.
  • Chemistry is the study of chemicals and reactions of those chemicals. Since, under terrestrial conditions, everything is made up of chemicals (and chemists often use especially reactive or dangerous chemicals), the likelihood of a chemist's death being caused by chemistry (e.g., explosions, poisoning, chemical burns, suffocation) is not insignificant. Unintentional poisoning is identified as the cause of death for about 200,000 people a year, chemical assisted suicide kills over 300,000 yearly. Many other causes of death, such as snakebite (100,000), drug and alcohol disorders, some respiratory disorders, and cancers are more or less directly caused by chemicals.
  • Marine biology is the study of ocean life. Many marine creatures are venomous, many are very large. Death could result from storms, boat accidents, drowning, diving accidents, exposure to pathogenic bacteria, toxins (such as those produced by cone snails, and "red tide" dinoflagellates), allergies to shellfish, or water pollution, in addition to such perhaps more obvious (but overwhelmingly rarer) risks as shark attacks. About 360,000 people die of drowning annually. Unprovoked shark attacks kill an average of 6 people annually.
  • Volcanology involves the study of volcanoes, lava, and magma, with obvious risks to the scientists studying them in the field. Volcanoes have killed an estimated average of 500 people per year; most deaths result from remote effects, such as tsunamis and climate disruption. At least 67 scientists have been killed in volcanic eruptions, as of 2017.
  • Gerontology involves the study of aging, and of growing old in general. As (to general knowledge) everyone has to this point been observed to age and eventually die,[citation needed] those who study gerontology are not immune to dying of old age even if they evade all the other possible causes of death — thus making it the most likely among all shown fields. A gerontologist still can die from something else first, but without the inherent risk factors of other professions such as active volcanoes or underwater diving, they're more likely to survive to retirement and thus meet their death of old age.

The title text is about Epidemiology, the study of health and disease conditions in populations. In the event of an epidemic, there is a strong chance that epidemiologists in the search for the cause, transmission, and treatment will be exposed and become victims of the disease in their own right. However, the title text refers more broadly to the role of epidemiology in maintaining detailed statistical records of diseases and other causes of death, such that eventually any epidemiologist (whatever the cause of death) will become one of their own statistics.


[A line chart is shown going from left to right with two arrows on either side. On the line are ten dots spread out unevenly from close to each end. The first four dots are clustered together on the left side. Then follows 5 more dots unevenly spaced, all to the left of center. On the far right of the line, near the end, there is one dot. Beneath each dot, there goes a line down to a label written beneath each line. Above the chart, there is a big title and below that is an explanation. Below that again, there is a small arrow pointing to the right with a label above it.]
Probability that you'll be killed by the thing you study
By field
[Arrow pointing right, labeled:]
More likely
[Labels for the ten dots from left to right:]
Mathematics (0 pixels from first field, 0.00% of overall range of fields)
Astronomy (9px, 1.35%)
Economics (16px, 2.40%)
Law (22px, 3.30%)
Criminology (77px, 11.56%)
Meteorology (96px, 14.41%)
Chemistry (156px, 23.42%)
Marine Biology (166px, 24.92%)
Volcanology (206px, 30.93%)
Gerontology (666px, 100.00%)

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Many more chemists have job related deaths than gets recorded. It sometimes takes years for the effects of on the job actions to show up. For example, washing your hands in benzene was common practice in the 1960's in Chemistry departments across the US. The result decades later was bone barrow cancer.

"In most modern societies, age-related diseases are by far the most common cause of death for both gerontologists and other people." ^ Can someone change this? In most modern societies, smoking kills significantly more people than old age.

Oncology, the study of cancer, should probably be in the diagram, probably not far behind gerontology. What's the name for the study of traffic accidents? Barmar (talk) 19:08, 26 April 2019 (UTC)

I don't know, but what about cardiology (heart disease)? 19:58, 26 April 2019 (UTC)
Technically, noone dies by old age itself. Most people die because of infection, injury or organ failure. Those deaths are often attributed to age because with age, immune system gets worse in fighting infection, regeneration gets slower and organs get weariness issues. I would argue that the profession most likely being related to your death is medical profession in general. -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:11, 26 April 2019 (UTC)
You could say the either Medicine, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics kill 100% of people.
And since Physics is just applied Mathematics, mathematics kill 100% of people. Kvarts314 (talk)

Reminds me of this comic: 1895: Worrying Scientist Interviews. And also 1904: Research Risks. Herobrine (talk) 23:06, 26 April 2019 (UTC)

There’s an important distinction between being killed ‘while’ studying something and being ‘killed by’ what you’re studying, and the current explanation has many examples of the former that do not belong here. Absentmindedly walking in front of a bus while thinking about mathematics does not constitute being killed by mathematics. A marine biologist killed by something biological in the water (such as bacteria, snails, or sharks) was killed by what he was studying, but one who was killed by drowning due to currents or by non-biological pollution was not. Someone who studies the aging process will eventually succumb to the aging process (regardless what the immediate cause of death is), unless he dies of something else first, like a doctor in his thirties catching something fatal from a geriatric patient, thereby not being killed by what he was studying. 03:09, 27 April 2019 (UTC)

Areed. Probably not Douglas Hofstadter (talk) 03:37, 29 April 2019 (UTC)

Mathematics absolutely killed Galois. Without the distraction of Galois theory, he could have focused on how to duel effectively, or at least gotten a good night's sleep beforehand. 09:29, 27 April 2019 (UTC)

This might seem like a poor reason to avoid gerontology but actually it's hard to study it for long before you end up with creeping existential dread 22:12, 27 April 2019 (UTC)

It is a fine point whether there is any difference between Mathematics, as such, and doing mathematics. So, uniquely among the topics listed, death from actually doing mathematics (such as wandering into traffic the while) should count. Mathematics itself was consuming your brain, preventing vigilance.

Astronomy: https://www.quantamagazine.org/did-supernovas-kill-off-the-monster-shark-megalodon-20190115/ Magnetars are far more terrifying than supernovas.

Isn't everything really just applied mathematics (and wasn't there an XKCD comic on that a while back)? Chemical reactions, physics, economics, etc. -- all math in motion. So, broadly speaking, shouldn't mathematics be rather far to the right, up there with the study of aging/old age?

Applying mathematics and studying mathematics are not the same thing. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 12:35, 28 April 2019 (UTC)
The comic you think of was probably: 435: Purity. Everything is applied physics is the pun, but mathematics is more pure, but has nothing to do with the real world, as stated in the title text... --Kynde (talk) 09:58, 29 April 2019 (UTC)

For the record, the comic is about the probability that the thing you're studying will kill you, not that it will kill you because you're studying it. I think that's an important distinction that might be confusing readers, loosely related to a previous comment about being killed "while" you're studying something. As an example, gerontologists would not be killed by old age because their studying it, but they are likely to die from old age just because that's how many people die, even if they're no longer studying it due to retirement. The comic is more about what kills you and less about how it kills you. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 12:51, 28 April 2019 (UTC)

Volcanologists are probably a lot more likely to be killed by volcanos than non-volcanologists are. --EmuSam 5:33, 29 April 2019

The title text puts me in mind of the quotation, variously attributed to Talleyrand or to Metternich. On hearing of the death of a Turkish ambassador, Talleyrand is supposed to have said: "I wonder what he meant by that?" More commonly, the quote is attributed to Metternich, the Austrian diplomat, upon Talleyrand's death in 1838. Happy birthday Salinger by Xan Brooks 18:46, 29 April 2019 (UTC)

As requested by the explanation note, I measured the distances of the fields along the horizontal line of the chart. I used the unaltered original image from the page at the time of the edit. If anyone can put the data into a more pleasing form, you are welcome to do so. The measurements are +/- 1-2 pixels, due to there rarely being a pixel in the exact center of the dots marking the field placings. (Was the 666px overall measurement deliberate?) These Are Not The Comments You Are Looking For (talk) 01:12, 29 April 2019 (UTC)

Risk relative to the general population does not figure in; otherwise gerontology would not be way out to the right.

Previously when doing such comics like in 388: Fuck Grapefruit the item from the title text was not in the graph because it would be so far to one side than all the others would end up on top of each other... Could he mean the same by epidemiologist... I mean sure old age kills some people, but as said above, no one is actually diagnosed as dying from old age anymore. Cancer, heart attack, etc. Also many will die in accidents and from diseases that may not be related to age. So maybe epidemiologists are much more likely to die from their study than even those studying Gerontology... And that is why they have not been included on the line as it would have moved Gerontology so close to all the others as to not make any distinction... --Kynde (talk) 09:58, 29 April 2019 (UTC)

I actually thought about this detail too. I think the epidemiologist is in the title text instead of the chart because it's not about what they study killing them, but is instead about them becoming the very thing they study: a statistic! Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 13:07, 29 April 2019 (UTC)

I tried to add some data for various causes of death. Many of these causes are very hard to track, since they have many indirect effects. The numbers also depend a lot on how you classify things. (e.g., should marine biology strictly refer to deaths caused by ocean life, or should it include fresh water as well, and should it include deaths caused by the ocean environment - which marine biologists also study.) I tried to use data from as few sources as possible so that they are roughly comparable. Given the numbers I have been able to find so far, the positions of several of the items is puzzling. Vulcanology in particular. While volcanos are dramatic, and on occasion they have large impact, in general they don't seem to cause near as many deaths as chemicals or crime, or even weather. 18:46, 29 April 2019 (UTC)

Can the incomplete notice be removed? It looks pretty complete and the notice only mentions "please add percentages." They are already in the transcript, which I think is more than enough. I'd argue even that including pixel counts there is too much distraction and does not add much value. -- //gir.st/ (talk) 17:37, 30 April 2019 (UTC)

I'm not going to change it, but I think it's a little silly to say 'nearby supernovas' & 'distant magnetars' could kill us. For one thing, I think it's fairly well established & a safe bet that there flat out aren't any of those in range to affect us. Regardless, implying magnetars are dangerous at greater ranges, especially by starquakes, is incorrect. Magnetars are formed in supernovae, which release way more energy than starquakes. A large core collapse supernova that forms a black hole, which focuses its radiation into a beamed hypernova doesn't involve a magnetar at all & it's vastly more powerful at much longer ranges.