896: Marie Curie

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Marie Curie
Although not permanently.
Title text: Although not permanently.


The comic begins with Ponytail stating that her teacher told her that if she worked hard (applied herself) she could be the next Marie Curie. But then a distorted zombie Marie Curie (drawn as zombie Hairbun) walks in and informs Ponytail that she is not the only influential woman scientist, and would wish people would get over her "as the only important female scientist". She then mentions two other important women in science.

Marie Curie was a pioneering research scientist, most famous for her work with radiation, and in isolating Radium, and Polonium. She died from aplastic anemia contracted from exposure to radiation from the extremely radioactive isotopes of Radium and Polonium that she would carry around in her pockets. She ends up warning Ponytail against exposure to radium, stating that it kills you, although as the title text points out, obviously not permanently as she came back as a zombie.

The conversation between Ponytail and Zombie Marie Curie refers to the fact that Marie is often singled out as the only significant female scientist. Marie points out that this is a poor version of the truth, for two reasons. Firstly, there have been many other significant female scientists, and secondly, Marie asserts that the most significant events in theoretical physics and mathematics do not arise because of an individuals desire for fame, but from passion for the subject and a great deal of dedication and hard work.

As examples of important women scientists the comic mentions Lise Meitner and Emmy Noether.

Lise Meitner was one of the major contributors in the discovery of nuclear fission for which her male colleague Otto Hahn was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1944. In the process she proved that Enrico Fermi had made some wrong assumptions, but he also got a Nobel prize whereas she only got a National Women's Press Club award as "Woman of the Year" in 1946. As a somewhat late consolation, the element Meitnerium was named after her in 1997 almost 30 years after her death. (She is later mentioned again in 1584: Moments of Inspiration).

Noether's Theorem is widely considered one of the most beautiful and significant theorems used in physics, and its repercussions are still being widely explored to this day. She had to learn mathematics by taking auditing classes at University of Erlangen since she was refused the opportunity to take classes because she was a woman. And later she had to teach without getting paid and under male colleagues' names, meaning that students would only take the course if they thought some "real" male teacher was guiding Emmy. Much later Emmy was referenced in the title text of 2595: Advanced Techniques.

Marie asserts at the end that Ponytail is not alone, meaning that there are many important female scientists out there, and also many young women wanting to become scientists. But could also be a reference to the fact that, as mentioned, female scientists might be less likely to receive medals or other tokens of support and encouragement.

Zombies are a recurring theme in xkcd, particularly zombie scientists, which has also occurred twice before with Richard Feynman in 397: Unscientific and Paul Erdős in 599: Apocalypse.


[Ponytail is looking up at a picture on the wall showing Marie Curie with a white hair bun. She seems to be standing in front of a laboratory table with samples strewn over the surface. Her arms are in front of her like she is working with these samples. A voice comes from off-panel (and is revealed in the next panels to be Zombie Marie Curie.]
Ponytail: My teacher always told me that if I applied myself, I could become the next Marie Curie.
Zombie Marie Curie (off-panel): You know, I wish they'd get over me.
[Inserted panel mainly inside the first panel, but extending a bit it, with a close up of Ponytail who turns her face around swiftly towards the zombie, as indicated by two speed lines curving around her head, even breaking the panels frame.]
Ponytail: Zombie Marie Curie!
[Ponytail has turned towards Zombie Marie Curie, drawn as Hairbun, who is walking towards Ponytail in typical zombie fashion both arms stretched out, with a battered and weathered look Stuff is falling off behind her, presumably mainly earth from when she dug herself out of her grave, and she is leaving a trail of this behind her, and it keeps falling from both of her hands and her body.]
Zombie Marie Curie: Not that I don't deserve it. These two Nobels ain't decorative. But I make a sorry role model if girls just see me over and over as the one token lady scientist.
[Close up of Zombie Marie Curie holding a hand up. She clearly has two large pieces of earth stuck to her face, and her hair is in disarray even with the hair bun keeping it in place.]
Zombie Marie Curie: Lise Meitner figured out that nuclear fission was happening, while her colleague Otto was staring blankly at their data in confusion, and proved Enrico Fermi wrong in the process. Enrico and Otto both got Nobel Prizes. Lise got a National Women's Press Club award.
Zombie Marie Curie: They finally named an element after her, but not until 60 years later.
[Zoom out to both Ponytail and Zombie Marie Curie both with their arms down.]
Zombie Marie Curie: Emmy Noether fought past her Victorian-era finishing-school upbringing, pursued mathematics by auditing classes, and, after finally getting a Ph.D, was permitted to teach only as an unpaid lecturer (often under male colleagues' names).
Ponytail: Was she as good as them?
Zombie Marie Curie: She revolutionized abstract algebra, filled gaps in relativity, and found what some call the most beautiful, deepest result in theoretical physics.
Ponytail: Oh.
[Close up of Zombie Marie Curie.]
Zombie Marie Curie: But you don't become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.
[Zoom out to both Ponytail and Zombie Marie Curie.]
Zombie Marie Curie: So don't try to be the next me, Noether, or Meitner. Just remember that if you want to do this stuff, you're not alone.
Ponytail: Thanks.
Zombie Marie Curie: Also, avoid radium. Turns out it kills you.
Ponytail: I'll try.


  • Marie Curie was later drawn in similar Hairbun style (but not with the zombie decay) in Thing Explainer in the article The pieces everything is made of (about the Periodic table), since she discovered two of the elements and had one element named after her, just like Lise Meitner.

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I miss the days when zombies would just bite you to death. What's with all this talking? Davidy²²[talk] 02:07, 17 April 2013 (UTC)

It would probably be better if she came back as a ghost. But radiation poisoning in pop lit only explains physically supernatural stuff, not external consciousness supernatural stuff. Zombies, on the other hand, have been used in pop lit as thinking characters, even though they shouldn't have been. 16:49, 3 December 2013 (UTC)Dartania

Too bad Marguerite Vogt is not mentioned. She should have shared the Nobel with Renato Dulbecco, as (relatively) recent as 1975. --Jkrstrt (talk) 20:02, 21 June 2014 (UTC)--Jkrstrt (talk) 20:02, 21 June 2014 (UTC)

Does it not escape your notice that by simply saying "everything else she says is true as well" you are doing the exact thing that this cartoon is trying to emphasise as unfair? In the last cartoon you guys couldn't say enough about the great Richard Feynman but you have reduced the achievements of two great women down to one simple sentence. Well played, I'm sure Randall's proud that you could so clearly see the point he was trying to make. 07:37, 2 February 2015 (UTC)

  • You have the power, 141...94! -- RyanofTinellb (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Ok,jeez we get your point,and I get the point. 22:39, 9 September 2017 (UTC)

I used to live in a road, named after Lise Meitner and read a lot about her back then. Really a shame she isn't more well known! --Lupo (talk) 06:51, 4 September 2019 (UTC)

What's up with "Today's comic might be familiar to a few dozen of you. :)" at the top of the page? Solomon (talk) 05:24, 6 January 2023 (UTC)

I think that's just hardcoded (or otherwise over-riding the "current header" of xkcd.com), perhaps for reasons that made sense back in 2011. Without checking anything like the Wayback Machine I am presuming it's been stuck as that since 2011. Or whenever the later comic ("today's") was that Randall thought to point casual viewers at from this one.
But, either way, it was clearly forgotten about, and the note still says "today" [i]and[/i] links to the (unrelated?) Blag post of about the time of this comic (which is why I don't think it was set that way much later), apparently forgotten.
Needs more looking into, if the circumstances are not already recorded elsewhere, but definitely a curiosity, or perhaps a glitch in Randall's custom-CMS. 06:14, 6 January 2023 (UTC)