829: Arsenic-Based Life

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Arsenic-Based Life
According to a new paper published in the journal Science, reporters are unable to thrive in an arsenic-rich environment.
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 will be less exciting to the reporters 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 result, where the reporters are either 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.[1]

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.


[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.]


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.[2] As opposed to the original French pronunciation, where the v and r keep the same order.[3]

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.


  1. 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.
  2. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hors+d%27oeuvre
  3. http://fr.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/%C5%93uvre

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What a waste of good poison, the food at conferences usually does that on it's own anyways. Davidy22[talk] 13:27, 8 January 2013 (UTC)

Maybe it is to be noted that in the comic, "serve cocktails and hors d'oerves" should have been written "serve cocktails and hors d'œuvres"? 15:14, 24 October 2013 (UTC)

I do not talk French but my dictionary tells me that "d'œuvre" (without the trailing s) is correct. Thanks for your hint, explanation is updated.--Dgbrt (talk) 19:41, 24 October 2013 (UTC)
"Hors d'oeuvres" is English; "hors d'œuvre" (with a ligature and without the trailing s) is French. 12:53, 29 January 2014 (UTC)
I am dumbfounded at the pronounciation part of the explanation. Do you really pronounce it with the "r" sound before the "v" sound? Why would you do that? 15:24, 27 December 2014 (UTC)
Basing my pronunciation on what I heard in the TV series Bewitched, I get something like /ɔːˈdɜːv/. In a rhotic accent, this would be /ɔ:ɹˈdɜːɹv/. RyanofTinellb (talk) 01:18, 30 December 2014 (UTC)
None the less angicised it is pronounced ordurves. Arsenic is a pick-me-up in low doses and widely used at one time to show off horses, especially at sales. Many people died through its abuse in the good old days. Many creatures exist on poisonous habitats. On one Nat Geo show they had bison in Yellowstone eating arsenic rich vegetation in winter.

I have heard there is a grass in Amlwch's old copper quarry that can grow in copper rich soil that kills everything else.

Not sure how true any of that is but plenty of creatures live in extreme heat and pressure environments.

I used Google News BEFORE it was clickbait (talk) 21:33, 24 January 2015 (UTC)