The Devil’s dictionary, Sept. 26 update!

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.




sonogram  the standard unit for measuring the weight of a sound. Contrary to popular belief, loud sounds are not heavier than soft ones. Weight is determined by pitch: the lowest pipe on an organ, for example, produces a bassogram, which when converted to standard measurements is approximately the weight of an adult whale. By contrast, a sopranogram weighs about as much as a hummingbird.

maternal lineage  anything – physical or metaphysical – that binds a daughter to her mother, including the umbilical cord, a leash with a collar, the choice of an inappropriate partner, or various sticky substances found in the refrigerator.

preservation  any artificial procedure that extends the shelf life of organic material beyond its natural expiration date, usually to ensure that there will be a supply of food in the future. Various methods are used, including freezing. Humans are often cryopreserved, for example, so that someday they can be cured of diseases, or eaten, depending on the state of society when the electrical grid breaks down.

GFP  Good Freaking Pie

optimize  to improve the performance of a procedure or machine that has produced inconclusive or fuzzy results by putting on your eyeglasses.

ramification  what happens to a door during the springtime if you put a ewe on one side and a male sheep on the other.


If you liked the Devil’s Dictionary, you’ll probably also enjoy:

Letting science communication (and a cat) out of the box



Yet another update to the Devil’s dictionary!!!

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2016 by Russ Hodge

allorecognition   the ability to recognize yourself, rather than mistaking yourself for someone else, such as a famous person, a plant or a piece of furniture, or confusing a part of yourself with a part of someone else. Allorecognition can be improved by looking in the mirror every morning, naming the person you see there, and then checking your identity papers. If there’s any doubt, stab the person or body part in question with a sharp object such as a fork. If it hurts, you have accomplished allorecognition. Otherwise you have stabbed someone else and should apply first aid. Or you may be suffering from a rare congenital condition that makes you insensitive to pain, in which case you should still perceive a sensation of pressure as the tines penetrate your skin.

inbreeding  a theory developed to resolve the “multiplicity of ancestors paradox,” explaining why there are more people alive today than in previous generations. Until the 19th century, people believed that every person alive had two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on, which means that each generation you go back in the past, the population doubles, in a geometric progression. Thus the population of the Earth only 100 generations ago would have been 2 to the power of 100, or 1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376, not counting anyone that failed to have children. Since the surface of the Earth is approximately 510,000,000,000 square meters, and supposing that four people can be crammed into a square meter providing they don’t eat very much, this would have created a stack 621,397,350,000,000,000 people high. Assuming an average height of 1,5 meters, although those on the bottom layers would be somewhat shorter due to atmospheric pressure as well as that of all the people standing on them, this would create a stack extending 932,096,030,000,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, in all directions, meaning that you have to double it, creating a diameter which would extend about 6,328 times beyond the orbit of Pluto around the sun. Realizing that this situation could cause difficulties, for example by creating a massive black hole, ancient cultures permitted marriages between cousins.

omnis ovum e ovum  the theory that every egg arises from an existing egg, through the mechanism of a chicken, or perhaps a dinosaur. Unless chicken nuggets are involved, which are raised in laboratories and have been genetically engineered to be infertile.

omnis pullum e pullum  the theory that every chicken arises from an existing chicken, through the mechanism of an egg, unless the egg produces a dinosaur, or you have bought the chicken from one of those trucks with a rotisserie, which has roasted the chicken for such sustained periods that its DNA no longer permits a proper species identification.

qualifier  a word or phrase that scientists generally attach to every assertion so that in 10 or 20 or 50 years, when it is proven wrong, you won’t be too embarrassed, unless you have reason to believe that you will no longer be alive because, for example, you will be burned at the stake. For example, “Possibly it is thinkably presumable that our putative explanation is perhaps likely be somewhat true, at least on Tuesdays, although we are probably not yet entirely capable of controlling some of the potential variables that might impinge on the process and one should rather consider, as a means of eventually eliminating all other eventual potential conceivable explanations for what we believe we may have observed.”

On one’s deathbed, it is permissible to make assertions, such as, “And yet it moves.” (Galileo Galilei)



If you liked the Devil’s Dictionary, you’ll probably also enjoy:

Carmen Birchmeier’s brains


Aliens with three balls?



The Devil’s dictionary, Sept. 16 update

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.


survey  a form of stalking in which the group conducting the survey asks random questions of anyone foolish enough to talk to them, based on the principle that if you ask enough questions of enough people, you’re bound to learn something eventually. On the street it is hard to get people to stop, so some surveyers carry big nets. They also carry clipboards, usually to hide the hand that is picking your pocket.

metabolism  any biological process that gives off a smell, usually a bad one.

arachnicate  any process which significantly increases the local concentration of spiders, just as the way pontificate is a sharp increase in the number of popes in a given space.

sporadic  the description of a rhythm that has been disrupted but would otherwise occur at regular intervals, like what would happen if you stole a stick from a drummer.

effuse  to emit a substance, such as words, in an enthusiastic manner, usually accompanied by a liquid (spittle).

southern blot  the condition of a scientist after drinking an entire bottle of Southern Comfort.



If you liked the Devil’s Dictionary, you’ll probably also enjoy:

Some little-known facts about Kansas



The Devil’s dictionary, Aug. 10 update

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.




data  the scientific version of the art term “dada”: an international collective activity which promotes self-fulfilling public gatherings, demonstrations, the publication of journals, and the placement of urinals and snow shovels as art in museums, until a member of the public misinterprets their aesthetic intent and uses them for the purposes they were originally intended. (Thanks to Ted Johnson, Lawrence, Kansas, Professor emeritus extraordinaire!)

exaggerate  a standard statistical procedure applied to data that has been analyzed but revealed some slight inconsistencies or failed to live up to expectations. When an important item in a study has a bad day and underperforms, a scientist is allowed to add a small bonus to restore its normal ranking compared to the other values, as a show of confidence that it will do better next time. This has a motivational function, and should not increase the original score by more than 2 or 3 orders of magnitude.

cell cycle  the phases of events that define periods in the life of a dividing cell, named after the stereotypical segments in James Bond films: prophase (the action sequence before the Song and the opening credits, which are displayed against a backdrop of swimming, flying, or burning silhouettes of naked females); M phase (Bond visits the office of his superior and is reprimanded for some inappropriate behavior, after which he continues the behavior as if the discussion never happened); Q phase (in which he is given a wristwatch that turns itself into a helicopter, submarine, or releases an atomic missile depending on which button is pressed); interphase (during which you can buy popcorn); X phase (the parts you would like to see but don’t get to, so that the film can retain an “R” rating); hangover phase (also normally cut from the films, but is adequately covered in the following PubMed articles: Shaken, not stirred: did James Bond have an alcohol problem? and Were James Bond’s drinks shaken because of alcohol induced tremor?


If you liked the Devil’s Dictionary, you’ll probably also enjoy:



On-line etiquette for clones (with a few tips for zombies)



At long last! Updates to the Devil’s dictionary, Aug. 10

See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.


anterior  the part of the body above the posterior, provided you have access to gravity, and are not standing on your head. Otherwise, place your hands on your posterior; the anterior end is everything in the opposite direction.

posterior  if you are sitting down, what you’re sitting on; otherwise, what you would be sitting on, and everything below it. The posterior is also the part of a person that you have to ask your spouse whether it is getting too fat.

ventral  the part of an organism that expands in direct proportion to the amount of beer that is consumed.

dorsal  the region of a person that is opposite the ventral side; the part you can’t scratch or see without access to a mirror. If the ventral side is the side of a hotdog you put mustard and horseradish on, the dorsal side is the part near the bun.

p value  In statistics, the p value is a number which indicates whether life is a sequence of random events with no meaning, or whether the universe really is out to get you. The p value can be useful when an experiment doesn’t work and you must decide whether to repeat it. While it may work the second time around, there’s always a risk that the results might turn out even worse; you might, for example, acidentally create some antimatter. Even if you created only a tiny little amount, hardly anything at all, not even a dollop, it doesn’t take much to cause the solar system to implode. Since this has never happened before, it’s hard to estimate the probability that it will on any given day. The p-value might hover at around 0.03 for weeks or months, and then suddenly, within just a few minutes, jump into the millions. If you’ve ever seen it happen, it’s pretty impressive. In general, scientists try to keep the p value for undesirable things as low as they can and raise it as high as possible for things they would like to happen. This is possible because the probability of the bad thing is often almost exactly the inverse of the probability of something good. In figuring the p value, put in any quantitative information that might be relevant.

As an exercise, estimate the p value of a zombie apocalypse. Here the only quantitative value you really need to determine is the maximum number of days that it might take until the zombie apocalypse occurs, which is probably the total number of days left before the sun expends all its energy, providing scientists are unable to develop a zombie apocalypse inhibitor beforehand. Since scientists place the future lifespan of the sun at about five billion years, the likelihood that a zombie apocalypse will occur on any given day is 5 billion x 365.4 (1,827,000,000,000). So the p value will be p = 1/1,827,000,000,000. Remember that tomorrow you will need to recalculate; tomorrow the p value will be 1/1,826,999,999,999. (Note, if your experiment involves antimatter, there won’t be any days left before the zombie apocalypse occurs, so p = 1/0; this is an irrational number, but you won’t be around to worry about it.)

In clinical science, the p value represents the amount a clinic will pay you for a warm cup of urine, or charge you for it, depending on whether they are asking you for the urine or you are asking them to take it from you.



If you liked the Devil’s Dictionary, you’ll probably also enjoy:

Some little-known facts about Kansas