Fear us

At last, biologists get some respect from xkcd…and it features cephalopods. Seriously, no other branch of science has anything as wicked cool as the diversity of life to play with.

By the way, the artist reveals his physics bias when he has the cuttlefish crudely zapping their targets with boring old electricity. A much more subtle and powerful strategy would be to use them as vectors for a modified strain of Vibrio that would infect the brains of their victims, causing them to both glow in the dark and have an irresistible desire to close out their bank accounts and mail the contents to me…but no, I have said too much. He almost got me monologuing there.


  1. Sili says

    As a (failed) chemist, let me just say that we’ve seen this coming for a long time.

    Obviously, I’m not at liberty to divulge anything, but do you really think it’s a coïncidence that we’ve been interested in the molecules cephalopodes use for oxygen transfer?

  2. Kassul says

    thaf @ #2
    Maybe you’ll have the answer to a question I had about that strip. As for all xkcds, I read the title text for that comic(‘On the other hand, physicists like to say physics is to math as sex is to masturbation.’)

    What does that make what psychologists are doing? Sociologists?

  3. Guy G says

    I’d imagine that some psychologists are doing sociologists, but it’s hardly a general trend that you can infer.


  4. Herman Hiddema says

    Kassul @ #4

    Math -> Masturbation
    Physics -> Sex
    Chemistry -> Sex with someone you find attractive (ie: there’s chemistry, if you’ll excuse the pun)
    Biology -> Physically attractive
    Psychology -> Mentally attractive
    Sociology -> Threesome

  5. BillW says

    This is why I advised my daughter to study biology. She’s now hip deep in modeling bacterial evolution at UW. Hopefully she’ll spare me come The Revolution!

  6. says

    Actually I don’t think a prokaryotic infection could do all that. However, there is a parasite that causes ants to change their behavior and climb to the tops of stalks of grass so birds can more easily spot them and eat them, thereby continuing the parasitic life cycle. IIRC, they also turn the ants eyes red or something to make them really stand out. So you might be able to design a metazoan parasite to do all this. Building in the name and address of PZ Myers, plus check writing behavior, would be a challenge requiring new methods, however – some sort of neural implant, I should think. But it’s challenges like this that inspire discovery.

  7. Jason Dick says

    What exactly does a Physicist do anyway??

    Well, physicists attempt to describe the world at its most basic. We like to describe the world from the ground-up, working with things like individual atoms (or parts of atoms) and forces like gravity or electromagnetism. The other sciences tend to deal with things that we physicists would think of as complex higher-order structures, things like complex molecules or groups of interacting molecules.

    So, when talking about a cell, a physicist might be interested in, for example, how to calculate the precise behavior of a protein or a piece of DNA from its atomic structure. A chemist might be interested in how the various proteins interact with one another, or how certain molecules attach to the DNA and what effects they have. A biologist might be interested in how the cell as a whole behaves.

    There’s overlap between all of these areas, of course, and the lines are getting blurred between them to a degree, but hopefully you get the basic gist: physics is about describing the universe around us at its most fundamental level.

  8. NewEnglandBob says

    Jason Dick @ 11

    Yes, we all know this. The question “What exactly does a Physicist do anyway??” was rhetorical. This entire thread is jokes and fun. Lighten up.

  9. Geoff Rogers says

    BAck when I was a physics student, I there was a bit of doggerel verse scrawled on the wall of one of the men’s room cubicles:

    Under the spreading old oak tree
    The lonely young geo sat
    Amusing himself
    Abusing himself
    And making a c*nt of his hat

    So my question is, where do geo’s fit in this scheme?

    (We used to make fun of geo’s, though I couldn’t, these days, for the life of me tell you why.)

  10. Louis says

    Pfff bring it physics/biology bitches!

    Not only do we chemists have all the best drugs, we have all the best explosives. Nuclear my arse, if we didn’t purify your uranium for you, you’d still be hurling big rocks with a catapult.

    If you people join forces and make big bioweapon bombs? Ohhh fwightening, we have antibiotics and antivirals, sure it might take us a while to develop them, but we’ve got great extraction in our labs, we’ll be safe(ish). And we have mustard gases, neurotoxins and a whole swathe of nasty shit to fling at you.

    Flying squid with Sith Lord elctric powers, sure they’re cool, but they’re also fictional. We has the real shizzle. (Or something like that, I never know what the youth be saying these days).

    Oh dear, I’ve started a geek off. Oops.


  11. Mercurious says

    OT: Andrew Sullivan has a number of polls up for year end awards. PZ is up for the Moore award.

    The Moore Award – named after film-maker, Michael Moore – is for divisive, bitter and intemperate left-wing rhetoric.

    The Moore Award Link

  12. says

    Don’t forget toxoplasmosis. It induces rodents to seek cat urine and fear cats less, and it’s only a protozoan.

    Now, writing checks to PZ Myers is rather specific behavior. But how about increased skepticism and a desire to check facts? Or shutting down the “god center” in the brain? Those strike me as more basic sorts of things. Let’s do some research, people!

  13. Confused says

    …causing them to both glow in the dark…

    You have been playing spore.

    Unfortunately, your plan does allow the infectees to be zapped from space. (or at least, a low orbit – provided they don’t stand in the &$%$%£&ing trees…)

  14. says

    A cuttlefish learns, so amazing quickly,
    And oh so incredibly much–
    We’ve figured out chemistry, quantum mechanics,
    Biology, Physics, and such;
    We could, if we chose to, go traipsing through wormholes
    To galaxies light-years away;
    But frankly, there’s something more baffling to study,
    And that’s why we’ve chosen to stay.

    These rather unusual featherless bipeds,
    So noisy, so smelly, so strange–
    It seems they can learn, or at least they respond
    To contingencies which we arrange.
    They learn rather slowly, it must be admitted;
    It could be their brains are quite small.
    And given their habits, the evidence tells us
    Some probably don’t learn at all.

    They somehow invented some horrible weapons
    Which all thinking beings should fear
    They constantly threaten complete devastation–
    I’m rather surprised they’re still here!
    They keep dumping poison in lakes or in rivers
    Where others get water to drink–
    Although this is senseless, and foolish, and stupid,
    I still believe some of them think.

    They’ve hit upon something that multiplies thinking,
    A process they like to call “science”,
    Where each person builds on the other ones’ progress
    Like standing on shoulders of giants.
    Some say these “humans” are smarter than cuttlefish;
    I won’t be taking that bet!
    But maybe–just maybe–with science to help them,
    These humans… they might make it yet.


  15. Twin-Skies says

    Tsk, Tsk, PZ.

    Isn’t it obvious – those are particles beams! They look almost like lightning bolts, but they’re gonna do way more than fry you when they hit

  16. MacT says

    I do not want to promote a my-Porsche-is-bigger fight here, but the gist of the following comments:

    “Now, writing checks to PZ Myers is rather specific behavior. But how about increased skepticism and a desire to check facts? Or shutting down the “god center” in the brain? Those strike me as more basic sorts of things. Let’s do some research, people!”


    “They’ve hit upon something that multiplies thinking,
    A process they like to call “science””

    does kind of point to, well, cognition. As practiced by cognitive neuroscientists. Who use, I hasten to add, a lot of tools we would not have without the stellar contribution of physicists. Thanks, physicists!

  17. pikeamus says

    I think you are confusing respect with fear PZ, typically a flaw found in dictators and religions. Makes me doubt your status as “godless liberal”.

  18. TheOtherOne says

    I’m not sure a virus is necessary for the bank transfer. You’re already getting your minions trained to answer polls. All you have to do is start running polls that ask questions like “how much would you like to give me today” or “which bank account would you like to give me money from today”.


  19. False Prophet says

    This weekend, my friend (a PhD candidate in physics) stated biology was the gold standard of science. Everything “less pure” wasn’t really science, and everything “more pure” was full of crazier and crazier people (mathematicians being the craziest of them all).

  20. Jack Rawlinson says

    What exactly does a Physicist do anyway??

    Oh, you know, nothing much. Figure out how the universe works, that sort of pointless trivia.

  21. Sclerophanax says

    Why are you all arguing about the viability of PZ’s plan? Isn’t it obvious? He’s no comic book villain who’d reveal his plans beforehand and risk somebody preventing them form ever reaching fruition. He did it 35 minutes ago.

  22. Archaneus says

    @#16 I voted for PZ for that award after you linked it because despite what Andrew Sullivan thinks, that’s an honor.

  23. Quiet Desperation says

    Physics pwns biology. Can your gooey cephalopods accidentally collapse the false vacuum and destroy the universe? Huh? Huh? Can they? Huh? Yeah, didn’t think so.

    Main claim to fame:

    – colliding particles: Complete conversion of the Earth into a giant ball of blazing strange matter

    – cephalopods : They can open jars! Oooooo!

    The winner is clear, me thinks.

  24. BillW says

    Physicists, to paraphrase JRR Tolkein, break things in order to understand them – and so they have left the path of wisdom.

    Biologists, on the other hand, are synthesists who study the whole – and so they are obviously the most wise.

  25. says

    Algebra, geometry
    Gee I’m a bush
    Gee I don’t see
    Why you just pis on me
    And fuck up my psychology
    Your sociology
    Don’t jibe with my chemistry
    So I’m writing the history
    Of a classic love lost.

  26. says

    Finally, PZ gives us the subtle proof that he is evil after all. He has to worry about monologuing and revealing his powers/plans/weaknesses/etc. Only villians have that problem. Of course, real villians never think they are the bad guy, and the best ones always think they are doing the right thing. Just ask Syndrome.

    To that end, I make a good henchman/Number 2. I have a very low Betrayal Quotient, don’t use company time for personal Nefarious Schemes,and all I ask is that you not execute me randomly as a demonstration of your power. Do you have a formal application process?

  27. Benjamin Franklin says

    Biologists may be getting respect from XKCD, but unfortunately, scientists, according to Ray Comfort, deserve no respect at all.

    From his blog-

    When a man (or woman) professes atheism, he immediately disqualifies himself to speak as a representative of science because his premise is a violation of the fundamental rule of science–“nothing created everything”.


    Arise, ye mighty atheist hordes!

    Arise, ye Scientists!

    Arise, ye rational thinkers!

    Arise, and Pharyngularize!

  28. C Barr says

    irresistible desire to close out their bank accounts and mail the contents to me

    Didn’t Soupy Sales lose his job over this?

  29. C Barr says

    Don’t forget toxoplasmosis. It induces rodents to seek cat urine and fear cats less, and it’s only a protozoan.

    Cats get toxoplasmosis from eating infected rodents. Can people get toxoplasmosis from eating cats? (thinking Chinese food here)

  30. says

    The Moore Award – named after film-maker, Michael Moore – is for divisive, bitter and intemperate left-wing rhetoric.

    Hmmm. Our friendly local evilutionary superscientist P-Zed is being “divisive”? OH NOES!

    As long as the division in question has me on one side and pusillanimous blowhards on the other, I’ll be pretty happy.

  31. Epikt says

    Quiet Desperation:

    Physics pwns biology.
    The winner is clear, me thinks.

    No question.

    Biology: Your experiment goes wildly wrong. It eats you.

    Physics, LHC chapter: Your experiment goes wildly wrong. It eats the world.

  32. says

    “No other branch of science has anything as wicked cool […] to play with”?

    Huh? What about gradients and quasisuperminimizers?

    Ah, wait. Mathematics is an art, not a science.

    @ #6: Wasn’t the math-phys sex-mast thing thrashed to death already?

    Also, @ #26: Am I paranoid or has someone been reading Watchmen?

  33. Brad D says

    Chemistry: Your experiment goes wrong, you have a fire in your fume hood and are stuck talking to some idiot health and safety code wrangler for hours and writing reports on the incident.

    Biologists beware: if you make us chemists angry, we will take all our Erlenmeyer flasks back, then where will you be? Oh BTW, we scoff at your puny Petri dishes.

  34. says

    Those things in the comic? They can’t have been cuttlefish; they didn’t rhyme.

    C. Barr @38,

    Cats get toxoplasmosis from eating infected rodents. Can people get toxoplasmosis from eating cats?

    Do they cook the cats longer than the cats cooked the rats?

  35. varlo says

    You chemists and physicists with your nuclear weapons and plagues had best steer clear of us lib arts types. Pick on us and we will engage you in deep conversation which will bring about MAB … Mutually Assured Boredom.

  36. Nangleator says

    Just try getting funding or effective lobbying for your crazy research ideas without an illustrator/animator/marketeer like myself.

  37. E. V. says

    Wasn’t Sullivan absolutely sure Sarah Palin faked her last pregnancy to shield her underage daughter who was out of school for months due to “Mono”?
    Andrew Sullivan, on occasion, can be very insightful but he can’t shake his god delusion. He’s a gay shill for Xian Apologetics.
    (I find the nomination to be a positive thing -I like Michael Moore)

  38. C Barr says

    Mrs. Tilton

    Do they cook the cats longer than the cats cooked the rats?

    Ah! Very good point. Those woks are sizzlin.

    Catfood article

    Guess I was wondering about the distribution of the protists in the cats. I think the cysts predominate in rodent nerve and muscle tissue, waiting to be eaten by a feline. But inside the cat the strategy is to load the intestinal tract with protists (cysts?) so that the contaminated feces get buried in my garden’s carrot patch, to wait for some hapless soul to ingest.

  39. says


    Dear physicists, I just picked up a copy of Introduction to Quantum Mechanics: Schrodinger Equation and Path Integral by Harald J W Muller-Kirsten. When it comes to physics I’m a layman, so was this a bad idea to learn about quantum mechanics and physics?

  40. Hideki says


    Feel free to produce something better or as widely read…

    You contributed nothing other than a derivative website that says nothing and matters even less.

    There have been some bloody good xkcd strips of late, the logarithmic view of the universe was quite nice for one -.o

  41. Mad Eel says

    YOU FOOLS! Have you forgotten who the true enemy is? All us natural science majors and engineers should unite to fight the BUSINESS MAJORS!

  42. co says

    Richard, at #55:

    That would depend on how mathematically savvy you are, and how well you can connect the mathematics to what they’re supposed to represent. Frankly, anything with “Path Integral” in its title is going to be tricky for someone new to Hamiltonians. I tried looking up the book on Amazon to get a feel for its reviews, but couldn’t find any reviews (easily). However, the “Look Inside!” feature tells me that after the customary introduction, the content will be pretty heavy going: Chapter Two goes over Liouville’s Theorem, as applied to Hamiltonians, and Chapters Three and Four wander into Hilbert spaces. However, Chapter Six goes over the “basic” paradigm for much of physics, the harmonic oscillator (probably dealing with ladder operators), but Chapter Seven goes into Green’s Functions, which are difficult to really discuss without going once again into some mathematical sophistication.

    I can’t get a really good feeling for the book, frankly. You may like it a lot; for teaching an upper-level QM course, I’d choose something like Griffiths (if you want to work for your math, but have some good exposition along the way) or Mertzbacher, which is often used at the graduate level, but is more wordy and isn’t as challenging as, for example, Sakurai. My recommendation is to avoid Cohen-Tannoudji like the plague, unless you want a reference.
    If you’d like a *taste* of QM, and not have to go through the math, I’d recommend Feynman’s introductions in his Lectures on Physics, or his popularization, “QED”. If you really like reading about experiments, then I’d recommend “The Quantum Challenge”.

    If you want more recommendations on physics texts, just ask!

  43. says

    CO @59,

    Thanks so much, yes the book is VERY math heavy; I had a lot of Calculus, albeit nearly ten years ago, but my goal isn’t really to understand a lot of the math, more to understand the ideas and concepts behind it, so I’m definitely looking for Griffith (it was on my wish list at Amazon actually!). I’d really like to understand particle physics as well, such as the standard model and what the particles are, what they decay into, etc, plus I’d like a better grasp of relativity; would you have any suggestions for where a layman could learn about physics/QM/relativity on a level somewhat above elementary, but not something that would be just way over my head.

    Thanks again!

  44. Sven DiMilo says

    Ernest Rutherford was a tunnel-visioned relic of the 19th Century who said something very silly.” — Sven DiMilo

  45. JCM says

    “Seriously, no other branch of science has anything as wicked cool as the diversity of life to play with.”

    I’ve never heard anyone outside New England use “wicked” in that way before.

  46. E.V. says

    Everyone knows there are no true Biochemistry majors. It’s Bi now, Gayochemistry major later.

  47. says

    [blockquotes]Seriously, no other branch of science has anything as wicked cool as the diversity of life to play with.[/blockquotes]

    A yotta-watt of energy

  48. Brownian, OM says

    Sorry PZ, but there’s no way we’re gonna let Roseanne or anyone else beat you out for Sullivan’s Moore Award.

    I have a grudging respect for Andrew Sullivan based solely on his much blogged-about online discussion with Sam Harris, even is he one of those most supercilious of beasts, the moderate Catholic apologist (motto: “The Church is Always Right About God, Except for the Things On Which I Disagree With It.”)

    Richard @#55:

    Ever tried any of Brian Greene’s books? I’ve gotten most of the way through The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, but my Calabi-Yau manifold tends to conk out on the longer stretches, leaving me steaming at the side of the highway while other motorists point and laugh at my lack of branes.

    All joking aside, his books provide a convenient planck from which you can stand to reach some of the more math-intensive texts.

  49. co says

    Hi, again, Richard (at #61),

    I have my likes and dislikes; Einstein’s papers on special relativity are lucid and quite easy to get through, and from The Master Himself, of course. His “The Meaning of Relativity” is quite deep, whereas “Relativity: The Special and General Theory” is easier going. I have been reading, lately, a very nice book on special relativity by a nice gentleman (Moses Fayngold) who sent me a copy from his overstock. The English and editing is a mite shaky in places, but the ideas are all there, so you might try Fayngold for a good introduction to s.r. (however, this and almost all treatments presuppose some experience with electromagnetism, or at least with linear waves. One may actually work back the other direction, from s.r. to Maxwell’s equations, but I’m of the opinion that the other direction is a bit easier.).

    I haven’t concertedly dealt with particle physics since I was an undergraduate, so I can only wave my hands a bit here. My own feelings about particles and decays are that one can understand them in two ways: (i) as a particle ‘zoo’, which means that one tries to understand, at some (perhaps basic) level, what each particle is, in which processes it might be found, and what its parent and child particles can be. (ii) from a deeper, more “fundamental” level, which means that one has to go into all the symmetry-breaking, gory details. I, personally, prefer approach (ii), because it feels more unified, and I like math. On the other hand, (i) is probably easier to get into, and is a more historically cohesive approach.
    John Gribbins has a series of books which touch upon a lot of these neat ideas; I’ve heard that his more recent ones are approaching woo in their contents, but when I was much younger I very much liked “In Search of Schroedinger’s Cat” as a layman’s overview.

    I’m quite liking the historical developments of these subjects, much moreso than when I was a lad, and it helps me to put them into some contexts, and connect their ideas (the story of Bohr’s thesis as an undergrad is quite fascinating!). If you don’t mind approaching your physics from a historical viewpoint, I’d recommend Gleick’s biography of Feynman: “Genius”, and Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”.

  50. says

    Brownian, no, haven’t read anything in physics other than Brief History of Time, which I loved BTW. Greene is now on my official watch list as I scour Amazon later today. They’re going to make a fortune off of me :) I’m just really, really interested in learning about physics, but I wanted to make sure that what I read is not too difficult to understand and also not outdated by new discovery.

  51. Valkyr says

    Richard, at # 55

    As a student, I’ve become a big fan of Shankar, but he does spend a lot of time on the math. On the other hand, he gets most of it out of the way in the first chapter, and his explanations are extremely thorough. He states in the intoduction that he wrote the book for students who wanted to learn on their own.
    I’ve read Griffiths, too, and co’s description seemed accurate. I’d avoid Gasiorowicz, unless you can get ahold of the second edition–the third cuts out a lot of explanation.

  52. co says

    I’ve not read Greene’s latest, but I was very impressed by The Elegant Universe (the book; the PBS series was fun, but I really didn’t feel that it measured up to the book at all). He really got the big ideas in there, in understandable form, without relying on the maths too much.

  53. Sven DiMilo says

    All joking aside, his books provide a convenient planck…

    I see what I think you did there…

  54. says

    Ah, more authors to add to the list, this Solstice is going to be very expensive, my credit cards may get Maxed (heh, see what I did there????). So while we’re on the subject of books, and seeing as how I’ve managed to hijack the thread (glad there are educators here!), any suggestions for a book regarding history of the bible and its contents? I saw the Nova special a few weeks ago and loved it and would love to learn more.

    And again, thanks everyone for the suggestions, I’m an MIS/CS guy and that’s about all I read, but I love science in general and would love to fill up my bookshelves with more.

  55. co says

    Yet more OT junk from me….
    Richard (or anyone), if you want to get into physics and have a moderately fast internet connection, I highly recommend the series of lectures from MIT by Walter Lewin: the first three series here http://www.learnerstv.com/course.php?cat=Physics . I’m learning a lot from the computer science lectures on that site, too, and the engineering ones. I haven’t yet really got into the biology or chemistry lectures, as they’re either too basic, or too advanced for me, but perhaps over the xmas (Happy Monkey, everyone!) break I’ll delve a bit.

  56. co says

    As for books, remember to always check out your local library booksales, and Dover reprint editions (these tend to be older books, but many of them are very, VERY good, and very cheap).

  57. says

    Mad Eel – YES. I have a deep and abiding aversion to business majors. At least all the ones at my university are dumb assholes who care for little else other than money.

    UW-Madison has a funny sort of hierarchy. At the top, of course, are me and my fellow biological science students. We are a biological science campus for the most part; two-fifths agriculture, two-fifths biological sciences, and one-fifth everything else. Fun fact: about four-fifths of the campus is, in fact, composed of nothing but agricultural and biomedical science buildings. We also have an outpost of the US Department of Agriculture and the upper Midwest’s Primate Research Center. We spend the most research dollars of any public university. The second rung of the hierarchy is the engineering students, who are generally isolated on the engineering campus, which is about seven or eight buildings. The rest of the campus is a mishmash of buildings that contain anywhere from one to five departments each – physics, I suppose, is special in that it has TWO buildings, but chemistry has one, psychology has one, and many buildings have multiple departments.

    Sven – It’s not truly geeky unless it’s h-bar.

  58. Owlmirror says

    Sven – It’s not truly geeky unless it’s h-bar.

    Or in other words, “I see w?at you did there…”

  59. says

    use them as vectors for a modified strain of Vibrio that would infect the brains of their victims, causing them to both glow in the dark and have an irresistible desire to close out their bank accounts and mail the contents to me

    Yes, but it’s hard to show that in just eight panels.

  60. Feynmaniac says

    I’m definitely looking for Griffith[s] (it was on my wish list at Amazon actually!).

    Griffiths is excellent. In first year physics we did pretty much no quantum, which I really wanted to learn. I picked this up at the library and was absolutely fascinated. Some of the math was intensive, but it was a good preparation for future courses.

    Also, The Feynman Lectures on Physics provides nice explanations and isn’t too heavy on math.

  61. says

    C. Barr @38,

    “Cats get toxoplasmosis from eating infected rodents. Can people get toxoplasmosis from eating cats?”

    You can get toxoplasma from pretty much any kind of undercooked meat — France has a ~80% infection rate! (explains a LOT =P). Toxoplasma is generally harmless in its secondary hosts, except for causing more boldness and less fear in the host (would be interesting to see how!). It can be a bit of a problem for AIDS patients — the weakened immune system may result in the toxoplasma eating the brain…

    [i]Toxoplasma gondii[/i] is probably one of the most effective eukaryote parasites out there — by being relatively harmless to its secondary hosts, it is transferred around the food chain until it gets consumed by a cat — where it undergoes sex and goes on with life.

    (good intro here: http://cmgm.stanford.edu/micro/boothroyd/boothroydlabdesc.html )

    Protists are awesome! =DDD

  62. Quiet_Desperation says

    All us natural science majors and engineers should unite to fight the BUSINESS MAJORS!

    I dunno about that. It was business majors that just secured me R&D funding for the next few years, allowing me to say, “Economic downturn? What economic downturn? Ooo! Look at the sweet deals on those Audi TT roadsters!”

    I thought the lawyers were the bad guys? English majors?

  63. Adam says

    As a pharmacy student, I really don’t know which side of the upcoming war I’m going to be on. I did, however, have serious plans to major in chemistry had pharmacy school fallen through. So unless you want to use cockroaches, some nice concentrated sulfuric acid should take care of those fleshy minions.

    And if you knew just where I’m going to work when (if?) I graduate, well, I could make a lot of trumped-up but unsubstantive threats.

  64. Dunc says

    Hey, are cuttlefish smart enough to understand space? Can they understand enough to relate aspects of space to aspects of life in water?

    Mind control is useless to all but the mad science types. I bet we could ask them to check out Europa for life. :D