2655: Asking Scientists Questions

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Asking Scientists Questions
'Does the substance feel weird to the touch?' is equally likely to get the answers 'Don't be ridiculous, you would never put your hand near a sample. We have safety protocols.' and 'Yeah, and it tastes AWFUL.'
Title text: 'Does the substance feel weird to the touch?' is equally likely to get the answers 'Don't be ridiculous, you would never put your hand near a sample. We have safety protocols.' and 'Yeah, and it tastes AWFUL.'


Answering the questions in Randall's what if? blog and his books What If? and What If? 2 requires a wide variety of scientific expertise, much of which he is unfamiliar with. To make up for this deficiency, Randall (here represented by Cueball) asks other scientists for help, in this comic represented by Hairbun.

Normal people (not from the scientific community) have certain expectations about scientists, as they would any group of people.[citation needed] In the case of scientists, they are often expected to be overly serious, "measuring the marigolds" rather than enjoying the simpler or more subjective things in life. This is reflected in the first panel, where Hairbun gets annoyed by Cueball's "frivolous scenario" and wants to work on formulas instead. This is the scenario one would have expected from the standard assumptions regarding scientists.

In reality, scientists are just like regular people in most respects (as has been represented before in xkcd) and this is why Randall, in reality, is more likely to experience something like what is shown in the second panel. Here Hairbun is quite pleased to get "something fun to think about" as part of their work, instead of filling out her grant applications.

Grants are donations of money from private or government organizations specifically aimed to fund scientific experiments and projects; in many fields, they are the most common source of funding, and the vast majority of scientists not directly employed by private industry rely on grants to support their work. These organizations require applicants to provide detailed information on the goal of the project, the methodology, the expected results, the specific uses to which the money will be put, and more. Applying for a grant is thus a lengthy, painstaking process that more often than not results in disappointment since most granting agencies have only enough money to approve a small percentage of applications. It also has little to do directly with the actual science the scientists want to perform. Thus most scientists find it a necessary but time-consuming and unpleasant part of their job, and the one here expresses relief at taking a break from this part of their work.

Hairbun then asks if Cueball would like to fill out grant applications, trying to bribe him with coauthor credit, powerful magnets, and plutonium. Co-authorship on scientific papers helps scientists advance in the "publish or perish" world of academic careers; such co-authorship might be above-board, if Cueball contributed scientific ideas while helping write grant applications, or it might not. Plutonium is used in making atomic bombs and is thus a tightly controlled substance, as well as being highly toxic due to both its radioactivity and its heavy metal poison effects. The scientist is so relieved to have found someone who might take over filling out grant applications that they are willing to give them access to such a dangerous material without even knowing their name.

The title text notes that not all responses were complaints about grant applications, noting two kinds of answers to the question "Does the substance feel weird to the touch?" which Randall claims are equally common. The first is the sort of response you would expect from a stereotypical scientist, just noting safety procedures that are common with such a substance and how they impede attempts to determine how weird a substance feels. The second is "Yeah, and it tastes AWFUL," implying that the scientist in question has not only touched the weird substance, but also tasted it. It could have been carelessness of some kind, perhaps having touched their mouth after handling a sample, but it might have been from deliberately licking it or even putting it in their mouth. Whatever the reason they tasted it, they are enthusiastically volunteering this elaboration without any actual prompting.

Eating a bizarre substance is likely a bad idea,[citation needed] as it could be poisonous. Less toxic minerals such as halite are sometimes evaluated based on taste as an informal test of their composition; nearly every mineral of low toxicity (and some otherwise) has been tasted for science. However, this is self-evidently a bad idea if you're not sure whether a mineral is a non-toxic one or a similar-looking toxic mineral; mineral taste-tests should only be performed by experts who know they're not eating arsenic or stibnite.


[There is a light gray caption written above two normal text captions that are above two panels:]
For the last few years, I've been working on answering peoples' ridiculous questions for What If? 2, which sometimes meant asking scientists for help.
[Caption above the left panel:]
How you'd expect scientists to respond to ridiculous questions:
[Cueball, representing Randall, stands holding a pad and pencil in front of a desk. There are a stack of three books and some papers on the desk. Hairbun is sitting on an office chair behind the desk. She is pointing at Cueball.]
Hairbun: Why would you present me with this frivolous scenario?
Hairbun: Such an absurd query can serve no practical purpose.
Hairbun: Now go; you distract me from my formulas.
[Caption above the right panel:]
How they actually respond:
[Same setting as in the left panel but the items on the desk have changed, so there are now a laptop computer and a stack with a book and some papers on the desk. Hairbun is sitting on an office chair behind the desk. She is holding another stack of papers up in both hands.]
Hairbun: Oh thank God, something fun to think about that's not grant applications.
Hairbun: Hey, do you want to fill out some grant applications? I'll give you literally anything. Coauthor credit. Powerful magnets. Do you want plutonium? I can get you plutonium.
Hairbun: What was your name again?
[Light gray caption below the panels:]
To see the answers I found, preorder at xkcd.com/whatif2 (out 9/13)

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I am of three minds. Part of me wants to write a basic explanation to get us started. Part of me is worried I'll lay a terrible foundation. And part of me doesn't want to get rid of "This is a comic about scientists.[citation needed]" without memorializing it first. GreatWyrmGold (talk) 22:12, 5 August 2022 (UTC)

That was cute, but your relocated [citation needed] is a fine replacement. Barmar (talk) 22:37, 5 August 2022 (UTC)

Considering "tastes awful", I'm a chemist and know an old recipe for amalgam-related stuff, quote, "...the reaction is over when the stuff doesn't taste metallic anymore". mode=Homer "Mmmmh, mercury!" 07:52, 6 August 2022 (UTC)

The first line of the explanation contains the word 'blag' in parenthesis. I don't know this word and the translations that dic.cc give are 'badly behaving child' and 'armed robbery' which don't make sense in this context. Can someone explain, please? Flukx (talk) 08:37, 6 August 2022 (UTC) "Blag" is an alternate spelling of "blog" to suggest that's it's not a mere blog, but something more special. 10:54, 6 August 2022 (UTC)

Also an in joke reference to 148: Mispronouncing. 19:21, 6 August 2022 (UTC)
And 181: Interblag Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 15:53, 8 August 2022 (UTC)

Can we solve the science funding crisis by telling scientists about Fiverr? (talk) 14:24, 6 August 2022 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

No. You underestimate the amount of funds scientists need. Remember that the Not-as-large-as-described Hadron Collider has budget €7.5 billion and reasonable Space Telescope costs $10 billion. While mathematics only need pencil, paper and eraser (and philosophers don't even need the eraser), most scientists could easily spent any amount of money received. -- Hkmaly (talk) 03:52, 7 August 2022 (UTC)
Even mathematics need something to eat and a house they can stay in while it rains outside. Kimmerin (talk) 09:09, 12 August 2022 (UTC)
I just have to say that "mathematics only needs (a) pencil, etc...", like grammar needs subject-verb agreement (singular noun, despite the 's', but let's not get into the "math/maths" shortening debate). And "mathematicians need something to eat...", just because they're living people who get hungry like anyone else.[citation needed]
Though, being pedantic, I should also point out that the pencil/etc really is optional (if not an impediment) in many cases, at least until you need to set your thoughts down more permanently/portably. ;) 11:04, 12 August 2022 (UTC)

This is an impressively lengthy explanation for a comic that is essentially self-explanatory - was someone in the middle of writing a grant application when it landed? 08:20, 8 August 2022 (UTC)

I can definitely speak to the grant application situation - I didn't realize most professors / researchers are struggling with funding related work year-round if not on daily basis, until I was actually involved in the process. Fair to say when I got lucky and got a grant for a 4-professor collaboration project, my PHD degree got a LOT smoother.

Why does "eating a bizarre substance is likely a bad idea" need a citation?

Am I the only one who noticed the implication that grant applications are one of the things that are fun?

Excuse me, did she say magnets? Powerful magnets? GIMME! Psychoticpotato (talk) 13:36, 2 May 2024 (UTC)