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.


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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. [1]

There have so far been several similar comics with such scatter plots. See for instance 388: Fuck Grapefruit, 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
very low very high Prosthetics Cyborgs A large number of villains in media have had augmentative and non-augmentative prosthetics for various reasons.
low high Neuroscience Mind Control
very low high Laser Optics Something like Laser Weapon System. Or a powerful laser could be used to cut the hero in two as in Goldfinger. See Directed-energy weapon.
medium low high Pharmacology Poisons
low high Materials Science New materials used for villainous purposes Adamantium, Vibranium, Kyrptonite, etc.
low medium high Sociology Sociological research may help in becoming a tyrant and then lead nation to war.
very low medium high History Ministry of Truth, using methods of previous successful dictators and learning form the errors of unsuccessful attempted dictators History is mere data and records, which does not "break free". A particular subject of history, however, can be of use to a supervillain.
medium low medium high Psychology Ministry of Truth, Hannibal Lecter
high very high Robotics Villains: Robot minions. Escape: robots gaining sentience and killing everything, or nanobots going rogue and devouring everything in their path.
high very high Genetic Engineering Villains: Modify troops to make super powered minions. Escape: Modified life could cause havoc See Gene drive
medium high high Chemistry Explosives
very high high Microbiology Lethal diseases See for instance 12 Monkeys
very low medium low Geology Golems, Earthquake machines Study of rocks. Scores below average on the supervillain scale despite Lex Luthor's plan in the 1978 Superman movie hinging on setting off the San Andreas Fault.
very low medium low Linguistics 1984 Newspeak
low low Paleontology Reviving dinosaurs and other such prehistoric creatures. Study of fossils
very low very low Astronomy Asteroid impact
medium low very low Molasses Storage 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
very low very low Dentistry Torture/Interrogation (see for instance Marathon Man
medium high medium low Botany Audrey II, Triffids Study of plants
high medium low Entomology Insects are small and can often escape through even small cracks, and are known for carrying diseases. They could also mutate into terrifying threats - see for example the movie Empire_of_the_Ants_(film) Study of insects
medium high low Mycology Fungi cannot move, but their spores could easily spread, therefore, escape probability has been deemed medium high. However the risk of mycology being used for evil has raised strongly with the release of Star Trek Discovery. Mycology is the study of fungi.
very high low Marine Biology Sharknado, Jaws. Villains may keep a tank of sharks in order to dispose of opposition.
medium high very low Ornithology Flying is a useful escape mechanism. Villains may sometimes keep a bird of prey as a pet. Study of birds.


[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 [2]. 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)