2655: Asking Scientists Questions
|Asking Scientists Questions|
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 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. 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, 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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