The Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases

A List of Helpful Expressions
which commonly appear in Scientific Texts:
their Meanings and a Guide
to their Appropriate Use

3707_001

inspired, naturally,
by Ambrose Bierce

 

copyright 2016 by Russ Hodge

 

 

additionally  a word meaning the opposite of “subtractionally”.

affinity  a word indicating the likelihood that two components of a system will have intercourse with each other, whether molecules or members of a laboratory; “high affinity” means they’re getting it on every chance they get, whereas “no affinity” means “when Hell freezes over, and probably not even then.”

alignment  the placement of two things next to each other in a way that lines up their ends, at which point they will be determined to have equal length or not. If not, the problem generally needs to be corrected. If aligning one end causes the other not to align, the standard procedure is to chop off the longer one to achieve double-ended alignment. If you cut off too much then the other item will now be the longer one and you must now repeat the operation on the second item, being careful not to get them confused. It is considered aesthetic to align hair, for example, on opposing sides of a person’s head to achieve a symmetrical result, but the actual process of ensuring that each hair on the left side aligns with its partner hair on the right is so complex that it must generally be done by experts and costs about $400. Amateurs often misalign the two sides numerous times in succession, which is the major cause of baldness. This can be avoided by placing a bowl on the head of the person you are trying to align, checking to ensure that their spine and head are straight through the use of a leveling device, and then cropping the hair evenly around the rim of the bowl. The bowl itself, of course, must be perfectly symmetrical and balanced at the exact zenith of the head, preferably by fixing it into place with a small nail or powerful adhesive so that slippage does not occur.

In genetics the term refers to aligning the genomes of two species to determine which one has “the longer one.” Anything hanging over is probably responsible for features found in one species but not the other. It is a myth that females tend to choose mates with extra letters that extend the length of their genomes.

aliquot  a small portion of a liquid, not an exact measurement, but smaller than the contents of a shot glass; if you start with a full shot glass and then drink a portion of it, this leaves you with an amount that is no longer a portion, so you drink a portion of that, then a portion of the portion, and so on until the glass is completely empty; an aliquot is the amount that is left just before you reach that point. Not even a Drosophila can get drunk on an aliquot. A yeast cell, perhaps.

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.

ambiguity  a mental state resembling the condition when someone can’t decide which of your eyes to look at and keeps shifting right-left-right-left until you want to punch them: cognitive eyeball pingpong.

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

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.

archaea  a unicellular organism known as an extremophile, generally meaning that it thrives in places the rest of us would find uncomfortable, such as hot thermal vents on the ocean floor, where they are thought to have evolved about 3.5 billion years ago, or in the tanks of Jacuzzis in hotels, the cloud palaces of Venus, or the belly button of a man who refused, for reasons that are unclear, to take a shower or otherwise bathe for many years. It is also unclear how the Archaea got into the belly button, although 3.5 billion years is probably enough time to crawl there from the ocean floor if you have a clear destination in mind and don’t make a lot of pit stops along the way. Some scientists believe that archeae invaded primitive bacteria and established a symbiotic relationship, leading to the evolution of the modern eukaryotes, although it is hard to see what they got out of the deal, unless they regarded the bacteria as hotel resorts where they could get cheap Jacuzzis.

Regarding the belly button, I cite from the original article: “Of special note are three phylotypes of Archaea [we found in the belly button], a domain of life often found in extreme environments and not previously reported from human skin [1], [27], multiple phylotypes of which we isolated from two independent samples (see online Supporting Information S1). Two of these three phylotypes were from an individual who self-reported not having showered or bathed for several years.” Reference: Jiri Hulcr, Andrew M. Latimer, Jessica B. Henley, Nina R. Rountree, Noah Fierer, Andrea Lucky, Margaret D. Lowman, Robert R. Dunn. A Jungle in There: Bacteria in Belly Buttons are Highly Diverse, but Predictable. Plos One: Nov. 7, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0047712

artifact  in archeology, a piece of garbage or any remnant left over from an ancient culture, such as the 1970s; in biology or medicine or physics, something produced by an experiment or an instrument that creates a hallucination in a scientist, such as an apparition of the Virgin Mary in an MRI scan of the heart.

automation  the activity that takes place inside the coffee machine in the hallway, on the rare occasions when, after the insertion of a coin, it produces both a cup and some sort of fluid; alternatively, the mental state of a graduate student during the writing of a dissertation.

bioinformatics  a field no one understands, in which computer algorithms are used to manipulate data to reach any conclusion you like, or to disprove the ideas of a competitor, by calculating things that would take a million years to do by hand, and the only way to check the results is to have another computer do it, even though they may be working in cahoots.

break  as into break something  the first stage of reverse engineering, which is a technical skill that forms the basis of pirating software, technology, or the secret recipe for Colonel Sander’s Fried Chicken, which one of my aunts claimed to have reverse engineered and shortly thereafter was never heard from again. Reverse engineering is based on the principle that a technology can be replicated by breaking it into its functional parts, making counterfeits of them, and then assembling the new pieces in the same way as the original. Ideally this is accomplished following the same steps as disassembly but in the reverse order, although minor detours are commonplace, especially if you didn’t take very good notes. Reverse engineering always results in one screw too many or one too few. This has to do with the law of conservation of mass and energy, which dictates that a thing can’t simply disappear without some transfer of mass or energy; otherwise this creates a wormhole or some violation of the space-time continuum and may destroy the entire universe. Thus the extra screw is to make up for the one that was missing the last time.

Break is used for both physical and metaphysical objects, but typically not for whole living organisms; you won’t find “break a cell,” for example, although you can crack them, and it’s also fun to blow them up with the microinjector. If you do find the word “break” in an expression such as “break a horse” (one can’t “break a mule”), or “break a predoc,” or “break yo momma,” the meaning is metaphorical – it is the spirit of the bull, or the momma, or the PhD student that is being broken in some abstract manner. Break can be used with body parts, usually those that are more solid: “break an arm,” and “break some heads,” but some softer parts are included as exceptions: “break your heart,” “broke his brain,” “frequently breaks wind during committee meetings.”

In common usage break bears many negative connotations – dismemberment, disease, death – but also many positive ones (coffee break, break a leg, marriage break). The majority of engineers, but not biologists, claim a broken object originally set them on the path to a scientific career. The parents were out, something broke, it had to be fixed before the parents returned. With furniture it could be done, and maybe the electronics – not so much the pets.

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?

chromatin  what DNA looks like when it lets its hair down and gets “hinky”, “funky” and “kinky”; i.e., a huge mess. If a scientist tells you it is actually highly organized, then give him a brush and tell him to untangle it.

citation factor  the scientific equivalent of the number of followers you have on “Twitter”; if it reaches an extremely high number, a scientist is said to have “scored a Kardashian” and gets his/her own reality show. Also as is the case with the Kardashians, this factor is directly correlated to the number of times a scientist gets a divorce.

classification  a system for dividing life into logical groups: organic, semi-organic, inorganic, semi-literate, unmarriable.

cohort  a large herd of mammals which is rounded up at regular intervals and corralled into the waiting room of a hospital or clinic.

collocalize  usually refers to molecules that move in together without getting married.

collaborator  a competitor with whom a temporary cease-fire has been negotiated.

competitor  a scientist who, for some reason, has taken a wrong turn on the Path to Enlightenment, accepts false doctrine, and despite your best efforts, refuses to admit the error of his or her ways.

computational approach  any use of a computer in any scientific activity (with the sole exception of making slides in PowerPoint). Formatting a text so that page numbers automatically appear on the pages is, for example, a computational approach to pagination.

concatenate  to line up cats in a row, so that you can rapidly apply some procedure or treatment simultaneously, rather than having to chase down each cat individually to remove its sex organs.

conditioning  any process of training which causes a biological entity, such as your hair, to behave the way you want it to rather than to follow its natural instincts.

conglomerate  an entity consisting of several partners, usually institutes or businesses, which have been joined together, thereby forming a glom. The precise historical meaning of “glom” has been lost, but it most likely referred to the sticky masses of alcohol, bodily secretions, cigarette butts, and other detritus of human civilization that fall to the floor of a bar and become glued together, forming gloms. EU collaborations or multinational corporations are examples of conglomerates.

control group  in experimental animals, the lucky ones; in human trials, the group that suffers all the poking and prodding of clinicians, gets a placebo, and is paid in Monopoly money.

correlation  something that happens shortly before, during, or after something else, making you think they are causally connected. Usually the two things need to appear together more than once to be considered a correlation, but maybe it’s a rare event, and you just haven’t waited long enough. A lot of things, for example, correlate with “when Hell freezes over,” which surely doesn’t happen that often. And sometimes personal circumstances prevent a correlation from taking place, even though you want it to. For example, there’s a correlation between having a birthday and getting birthday cards, but sometimes people just forget. If you uncorrelated your friends, they’d probably feel upset. So it’s better to tell them, the next time you see them, “There’s a correlation between having your birthday and gettings cards from your friends,” and they’ll surely get the hint.

corroborate  derived from the verb “to rob,” meaning to commit a theft. To corroborate means to join together in a gang or band to commit a crime, usually intellectual in nature.

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!)

deliberate  (verb) to consider a topic in a group for the time required to take into account all relevant points of view and as many irrelevant ones as can be produced in the time that is available. This happens most often in a situation such as a faculty meeting where attendance is compulsory and everyone must stay to the end, which places deliberations, from a legal point of view, into a grey area between kidnaping and hostage-taking. The amount of time required for a deliberation depends on the amount of time it ought to take a single person to come to a decision and the number of participants (n). If ten minutes would normally suffice, the time needed for a deliberation can be calculated according to the following formula:

Time = 10n

where in academic situations the resulting time is calculated in minutes; in political meetings hours, and in election campaigns months or years.

digestion  a process that plays an essential role in an organism’s health by undoing the negative effects of eating. This requires aggressive enzymes that are contained in a sort of high-security facility called the gut, which prevents them from escaping and digesting the organism they reside in. Digestion is also crucial to the long-term maintenance of ecological systems. Without it, large organisms would eat all the smaller organisms and exhaust the food supply. Digestion returns those at the top of the food chain to the bottom in the following way: a large organism eats another large organism, thereby breaking it down into smaller units so that it can be eaten by organisms with smaller mouths; their digestion, in turn, reduces this matter into even smaller units that can be eaten by other organisms with even smaller mouths, and so on, until the units are so small that they can be eaten by microbes, which have no mouths at all. That’s not the end of it; the process continues to the level of molecules, quarks, superstrings, and stops just before reaching infinitismity. Each passage through a digestive system performs a public service by removing toxins that would otherwise kill the smaller species that feed on its feces. Digestion is the main piece of evidence for the “Giant Robot” school of evolutionary theory, which claims that multicellular organisms arose as the most efficient way for bacteria to reach the food that is stored on high shelves.

diuretic  a substance usually produced by plants which, when ingested by an animal, causes it to release the water it has taken up from the environment more quickly, and closer to its source, rather than carrying it long distances away and depositing it in a foreign watershed. This phenomenon means that diuretic plants get more water and have an advantage in natural selection. A high number of non-diuretic plants in a particular environment usually triggers the rapid development of deserts: the water needed by the plants is carried too far away to do them any good. Upon the death of such plants, the organisms that eat them migrate away, further reducing the recycling of water. The effect is self-reinforcing, which ultimately causes animals to cluster along coastlines, resulting in a huge spike in real estate prices and making a species susceptible to extinction by tsunami. Over the long term this cycle leads to environmental conditions like those found on the moon and Mars, which could have been prevented by the evolution of a single plant with diuretic properties.

dominance  a sado-masochistic relationship between alleles, whereby one gets to use the whips and the ropes and the other submits to it.

doohickey  a small knob or control on a thingamajig that does damnedifIknow.

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. Unless you’re the kind of person who puts condiments on all sides of a hotdog, which will usually cause an inflation of your ventral side.

dosage compensation  a formula which calculates the proper number of cups of coffee needed to make up for each hour of missed sleep; a logarithmic scale should be used to plot the results. In genetics, dosage compensation refers to the activities undertaken by a chromosome to control the behavior of its crazy twin.

double-blind study  a type of study requiring an amazing amount of record-keeping to hide the fact that a scientist has forgotten which group is affected and which is the control. This leads to a situation where no one has the slightest idea what is going on, including why experiments are being performed, when they will be finished, or whose brilliant idea they were in the first place (usually someone who left the lab years ago). Most laboratory experiments fall in the category of double-blind studies.

effector  the person from the lab who makes regular trips to the funding agency in Brussels with the small silver suitcase full of cash handcuffed to his wrist. It’s permissible to turn over the bribe to any agent officially licensed by the EU, whose contact details are found on the proposal submission webpage. Please note that since last week, the credentials of all Bribe Officers with passports from the UK have been revoked.

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

efflux  something that comes out of a body, usually involuntarily. Removed from its natural environment and placed, for example, on the sidewalk, or on your dinner plate, efflux usually generates a sense of disgust and nausea, because you realize that there is more of the stuff in your body. This usually leads to reflux. From a legal standpoint, efflux has the same status as garbage: once you’ve put it out on the street, it becomes public property. Dogs may come by and roll in it. DNA samples may be taken from it without a warrent. You can no longer patent it. Anyone is free to come by in a pick-up truck, take it away, and display it on their lawn, or sell it on e-bay, or use it as the basis of a start-up company.

emeritus  a status in academia which is the functional equivalent of taxidermy or pickling, depending on whether the starting material was considered rather fauna or rather flora by departmental colleagues.

enantiomer  a form of asymmetry which becomes obvious when a glove is put on the wrong hand, a shoe on the wrong foot, or an arm or leg is surgically reattached to the wrong side of the body, which happens more often than you would think, but which at least puts the glove or shoe back on the correct foot. In this case the gloves and shoes are still called enantiomers, but at least they’re the matching enantiomers. Most molecules are enantiomers, which gives them the same sort of problem with gloves. Human beings are not enantiomers, at least not in this dimension, unless you count your evil twin who lives in the mirror. This raises the fascinating philosophical question: if you could choose someone to be your enantiomer, whom would you pick?

epigenetics  various ways of subverting what genes are trying to make an organism do, often through the attachment of chemical markers to DNA or molecules lurking nearby; if the genome were a coloring book, epigenomics would be the scribbling that kindergarten children make all over it.

European Union  Not to be confused with the “European Onion,” a common mistake in the UK, because “Onion” sounds like it begins with “un-“. It is unclear how many voters in the recent referendum were aware they were voting about their country’s participation in a political entity. Apparently many believed that Great Britain was under attack by a large, aromatic vegetable bulb. Probably a CRISPR/Cas experiment that escaped from the lab. In those circumstances, you’d vote to exit the Onion, too.

ex vivo  something that should be inside an organism but has somehow found its way outside, typically after a lab party, such as vomit, blood, mucous, and other excretions that my upbringing does not permit me to name here.   

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.

fact  an observation about the identity, quality, or characteristics of something that two people can agree on despite differences in their moods, religious beliefs, gender, political persuasions, or the number of goats that live in their houses, suggesting that the observation has objective value. Certain things can never be facts, even if their validity is extensively documented and can be measured: the age or degree of fatness of a spouse, the birthplace of a President, or the amount of taxes a person ought to pay. In the United States, since about 2008, there have been no facts at all.

flagellum  a whip-like structure that arose in early prokaryotes as a mechanism by which they could express displeasure by beating on their neighbors. Because early microbes had not yet discovered the principles of Newtonian physics, they were perplexed when this activity caused an equal and opposite reaction: beating your neighbors also pushed you away from them, which was usually desirable, at least until they learned to behave, and had the added benefit of bringing you into contact with more types of organisms that you could beat. In the long term this caused the environment to adjust to your basic desires, rather than the other way around.

The advent of multicellular organisms had two major effects on the structure and functions of flagella: 1) it meant that neighboring cells began to exclusively beat each other, because they were stuck together, leading to a relationship resembling marriage, and 2) flagella initially caused problems of orientation, because in essence the organism had lots of rowers, each of whom rowed in whatever direction he or she pleased. The development of mechanisms that coordinated the beating behavior of flagella in multiple cells had a survival advantage: if rowing carried you away from a source of food, you could steer back toward it. This led to the evolution of social hierarchies, such as dictatorships, in populations of cells, giving one cell the decision-making power over other cells in determining the direction that they should row. From that point it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to the modern human brain.

fluke  a case in which the tail of a whale appears spontaneously, unexpectedly, and inexplicably in the middle of any laboratory experiment or procedure or some other place where you do not typically expect to find one, for example in a test tube full of ribosomes,  or in a yeast culture, or on a highway in Kansas, or in your sock drawer.

fontanelle  a gap in the skull of newborn humans that was originally used for whistling and snorkeling. It could also be used to add or remove parts of the brain as a means of enhancing the learning process. Nowadays the fontanelle has changed dimensions to the point that it is almost exactly the size of a USB port, in anticipation of the day in the near future when knowledge will be transferred via flash drives.

Fourier transform  a mathematical formula which compresses something long and tedious so that it all happens at once.  Using the Fourier transform, you could hear Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring des Niebelungen, which take anywhere between 15 hours and 15 days to perform, depending on at what point the conductor dies, in a single moment in which all the notes would be played simultaneously. This saves a lot of time and probably resembles the listening experience one would have while on LSD. How does the Fourier transform work? First, you need a microphone. This should be plugged directly into an envelope function that shapes the continuous sinusoid (a structure in the nose) into a short pulse shaped like a Gaussian function. I haven’t the slightest idea what that means, or what precisely goes in your nose, but the main thing is it appears to work. You can try it yourself, just be warned: the end result is really loud. Theoretically you can undo it again, by reversing or inverting or decongesting the transform, or maybe just sneezing really hard, but I don’t know if this has ever been successful. The last time they tried, what came out wasn’t Der Ring des Niebelungen, but the song, “I wish I had an Oscar Meyer wiener.” But I think they left out the ^ over the f in the following formula:

 fourier

funghi  a foodstuff that originally evolved as an organelle of Pizza Rustica, but then underwent a sort of metastatic process through which fungi wandered off the plate, into the forest, and adapted in ways that permitted growth in moist soil. This had health benefits for pizza eaters, because to get the best tasting funghi they had to get off the sofa and go for walks outside.

generation time  the period of time that a mother requires between giving birth to one child or litter and the next. Mathematically the generation time for a species can be calculated using the following formula:

gestation time + x

where gestation is the amount of time between conception and birth and x is the amount of time between giving birth and the resumption of sexual activity by the mother, usually due to the insistent behavior of her partner.

For humans this generally results in a generation time of 9 months + 20 minutes

GFP  Good Freaking Pie

gold standard  an amount of pure gold equivalent to the value of an impact point. In ancient times, alchemists were actually awarded gold for their achievements (i.e., the degree to which their strange experiments came close to making it). In modern times, the gold standard was replaced with paper currency (journal articles), and is basically worthless in objective terms.

grant application  a bureaucratic procedure whereby a research laboratory applies for funding to pay for something that they have already done, yet pretend not to have finished, to get money to pay for the next thing they would like to do.

group leader  an official title of purely ceremonial significance, similar to “Lord Privy Seal” or “Fan-Bearer on the Right Side of the King,” given to a person who is responsible for a laboratory’s budget and doing the paperwork, but not much more.

habituation  the process by which the brain becomes desensitized to sounds, smells, advertising, well-meaning advice from family members, and various other annoying stimuli rather than responding in an instinctual way, for example by becoming an ax murderer.

heredity  a process by which the worst characteristics of two organisms are assembled in various combinations to produce their offspring, until they are all used up, at which point the best properties are combined into a single, precious child, known as the “baby of the family.”

heterochromatin  a Godawful mess of DNA, but at least it has been swept up into piles so that it can be easily spread somewhere else, the way leaves are raked in Autumn before being blown asunder by the wind, or manure is collected to be strewn over fields.

Hirsch number, or h number  an abstruse calculation developed by a physicist, as most of them are. The Hirsch number calculates the importance of a scientist in the Grand Scheme of Things (i.e., the Mind of God, or the Nobel selection committee) by multiplying the number of citations he has received by the size of the antlers growing out of his head. (As Fred Luft points out, Hirsch is German for “deer”.) The h number was chosen after numbers a – g didn’t work out.

hither  the opposite of thither.

holy grail  something that is being sought by everyone in a field, such as a four-leaf clover, or your group leader’s car keys. There are lots of holy grails; each discipline has one. The holy grail does for research what a treasure hunt accomplishes at a child’s birthday party: it keeps everyone busy, out of trouble, and far away. If by chance someone should actually find the holy grail, everyone comes in for a piece of cake, at which point an authority figure determines that no, a mistake has been made. This is not the holy grail; it is actually something else, and the scientists are sent back outside to look some more. The best way to ensure that the party runs smoothly is to find the holy grail, for example the Higgs boson, before the party ever begins. Then put it on your chair and sit on it the whole time so that there is no chance that it will be found.

hybridization  a process by which members of two different species mate, willingly or by force, sometimes simply out of desperation, possibly without realizing it, for example at a costume party, and produce offspring that will have species identity issues their entire lives.

icthyology  the study of the religions and belief systems of fish.

impact factor  a representation of the number of times your competitors would like to punch you in the face, or run over you with a car.

in…  means “in”, another of those cases in which scientists substitute a Latin word for a perfectly good English word, as in:

  • in vitro  studying some biological object in an object that can be broken, such as a glass slipper or a snowglobe, usually an unnatural environment in which it feels quite uncomfortable, and performing increasingly odd experiments on it until it finally behaves the way you think it ought to. An exception is the stuff growing in the coffee cup that you didn’t clean and left standing on your shelf for six months, which feels comfortable enough, and is growing in its natural environment.
  • in vivo  an experiment carried out in a living organism, or one that was alive until you began performing experiments on it, such as a lab technician.
  • in silico  a purely theoretical experiment carried out in a computer, such as an experiment conducted in SIMS world, or shooting flying chickens with a rifle; alternatively, any biological process that takes place in the environment of an artificial breast.
  • in situ  an experiment that can be done sitting down, preferably in the comfort of your own home, without having to get up, allowing you to do science while remaining within reach of the TV remote and alcoholic beverages, although it is permissible to have other people bring you things. An example of an in situ experiment is to extract organic material from your belly button for use in a metagenomics experiment. Another is to stare fixedly at a computer screen for as long as possible without blinking, repeating this several times, and then taking an on-line eyesight test to determine the degree to which your eyesight has worsened. At that point you can order new glasses via the Internet and have them delivered to your door.
  • in excelsis deo  a miracle that occurs in a laboratory, for example when all experiments work according to established protocols, a paper gets accepted upon first submission, or a PhD student completes a dissertation within the period of time he or she is paid.

in the same fashion  today this means “in the same way.” Until around the 1970s, however, it meant that everyone in a lab had to wear the same clothes. The group leader had full authority over the dress code, including underwear (or not). The practice began after a paper in a psychology journal suggested that giving group leaders this power would improve their mood, the morale of their labs, and thus the impact of their papers. Most groups adopted the generic lab coat (underwear optional), but others took a more creative approach. Popular themes for laboratory wear included: monogrammed shirts with the logo of the lab bowling team (membership obligatory), black tuxedos, white tuxedos, Vikings, woolen sweaters knitted by the group leader’s mother, Disco, Star Trek, penguin costumes, the Village People, hockey uniforms, Octoberfest, pimps & hookers, Elvis impersonators, the Court of Versailles, the band KISS, characters from the Godfather films, etc. (The “cowboy” theme was forbidden after the first few shootouts.)

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.

influx  to pick up some efflux and insert it into your body, usually via the mouth, which frequently triggers reflux. If the material originally came from your own body, this is not considered cannibalism.

inhibitor  a means of preventing something from getting done by introducing a substance, such as a group leader, that interferes with its normal activity.

intellectual property   the first step in a lawsuit.

international collaboration  when you add an American scientist to the list of authors on a paper so that it will seem like a Big Deal; the American may not do anything, but he will be the only person mentioned when his university puts out a press release on the project. Certain websites, which function much like dating sites, provide names of Americans who are willing to let you use their names on papers for a fee.

interdisciplinarity  the involvement in a project of someone who has no business being there, such as a physician, a hay farmer, a sanitary disposal engineer, a chicken, or a goat.

last but not least  a phrase commonly used in talks that functions like an alarm clock, or a defibrillator, rousing members of the audience who have entered comas, raising hopes that they may live to hear the end. Speakers who are unable to hold the audience’s attention in any other way use the expression about once every five minutes, even several times in the same paragraph. Officially, this is considered a foul, and any speaker who is caught doing it gets an automatic yellow card and a one-year suspension from the conference circuit.

latency  a measurement of time that begins when your alarm clock rings and ends when you actually get out of bed.  Or, the period of time between turning in your thesis and a sign of life from your doctoral committee.

law of independent assortment  the physical law dictating that during a migration to the laundry and back, one sock always vanishes. Despite extensive research, it has not yet been determined whether this occurs during transport or processing, nor is the mechanism known. A variety of hypotheses have been put forward: degradation, some bizarre fetish ritual, or cannibalism. A recent study suggests a novel alternative: the stress of centrifugation in a washing machine activates a color-switching gene. The sock is in fact still there, but is unrecognized by the foot. This does not explain why the number of outbound socks is even, but odd upon their return; the authors suggests that a counting defect might be involved.

mammary gland  what you say to your mother if it becomes necessary to refer to her boob.

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.

median  the invisible line in a lab separating your work space from that of your immediate neighbor in any direction. Nothing should cross the median. Not even a shadow. On a highway, crossing the median will likely lead to a fiery collision and death. The consequences for crossing the median in a lab are unimaginably worse, and cannot be reprinted here. You must obtain a visa and give notice of your travel intentions several months in advance. Vaccinations are not obligatory, although it’s always wise to keep your tetanus booster up-to-date. Note that airspace belongs to the bench directly below it, up to the ventilation hood, and any violation will result in a drone strike.

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

moreover  a word used when all the alternatives have been exhausted, such as “and”, “also”, “additionally”, “in addition”, etc. It means “more and more and more and over and over and over” until you agree with the author out of sheer exhaustion.

neutralize  to emasculate a chemical substance.

Nobel laureate  a winner of the Nobel Prize who can read, and is sometimes seen dancing through the hallways with a wreath of olive leaves perched at a rakish angle on his or her brow.

Nobel Prize  the scientific equivalent of an “Oscar”. Originally prizewinners used to be given a small, nude, anatomically detailed statue called “Alfred” made of pure gold. Nowadays Alfreds are melted down into the shape of a medal so that they can be worn in public. Upon winning the Prize, your country builds an institute for you and makes you an Emperor and you are allowed to say any crazy thing on your mind. And you’ll never have to pay for a drink in a bar ever again. Many Nobel laureates did their prizewinning work as young scientists in labs where they were detested and then booted out for eccentric behavior; awards are usually granted when they are 70 or 80 and have calmed down somewhat. When a scientist makes a discovery worthy of the Nobel prize he is supposed to cry out, “Sacré bleu!” or yodel at a penetrating volume.

null hypothesis  a theory claiming that everything is nothing, or nothing is anything, or that nothingness pervades the universe, or would do so if the universe existed, but according to the null hypothesis it doesn’t, so what would there be to be filled with an infinite amount of nothingness? And does a system containing only nothingness obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Can the same volume hold different degrees of nothingness, which differ only in the density of nothingness against a background of nothingness, and if so can the nothingness in a system increase over time, or decrease, depending on how you see these things, to the point that eventually all the nothingness will be gone, and there will be nothing left at all, not even any nothingness?

offal  something inside an animal that is removed so that it can be eaten by another animal, thus returning to the inside where it belongs. An example is the Scotish dish haggis, made by thrusting a hand into the mouth of a sheep so forcefully that it passes all the way through and emerges from the other end, then grasping the tail and executing a sudden jerk in the headwards direction until the sheep is turned inside out, with its intestines on the exterior. After seasoning, the animal is roasted or baked until it shows no further signs of resistance. The first time an Englishman saw this practice he called it “awful”, to the great pleasure of the Scots, whose esteem for anything (such as the EU) rises in direct proportion to the degree of displeasure it causes the English. The Scots proudly began calling their dish “awful” haggis, but their pronunciation made it sound like “offal” to the English, who readopted it as a term to refer to “any innards that only a barbarian would eat.”

Organs that have been extracted for the purpose of transplantation are not normally considered offal, unless they are eaten by mistake. Vomit is considered offal by cats, but not humans, except in the case of projectile vomiting, which may expel bits of organs that it would be desirable to replace in the body.

An example of the word’s proper use can be found in the sentence:

“How awful is a wall of falafal full of offal.”

-omics approach  any experiment conducted on a machine that cost more than $1 million.

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.

open source  a code phrase which you use to inform someone higher in your institutional hierarchy that his fly is open. In recent years it has been used metaphorically to refer to efforts that involve community action and a free exchange of information, the way that the entire community at the party is aware that the department chairman’s fly is open, and in the open source philosophy it would be unethical to withold that information, so you share it freely with everyone, along with any speculations you wish to share freely about the reason it is open. The open source philosophy predicts that at some point in this process, the chairman will inevitably become aware that his fly is open. If only by the fact that all eyes are pointedly averted from it.

optimism  hopeful expectation without any evidence to back it up. The first stage in depression.

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

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 pee or you are asking them to take it from you.

parsimony  a basic principle in science which involves trying to keep things simple. This can only be achieved in a scientist’s early years, before life gets cluttered by events such as matrimony. At that point parsimony becomes very difficult, and in the alimony phase it is completely impossible.

peer review  There was an ancient custom among certain Native American tribes in which a warrior, fallen into enemy hands, was made to run down a corridor formed of members of the tribe that had captured him, each of whom was equipped with a weapon with which to strike him. If he made it all the way to the end he was permitted to survive. Peer review is the scientific equivalent.

penetrance  the degree to which some genetic or medical condition that you have – such as a cleft chin, or a mosquito bite – annoys you, and as a result the extent to which you annoy anyone who has inherited part of your genome.

perspire  etymology: from the Latin per, which means with or through, and spire, which is the pointy thing on top of a church; the compound perspire is probably derived from the fact that a spire is awfully darned heavy and whoever has to carry it up all those stairs to mount the thing on the roof is bound to emit some sweat. Perspiration is an involuntary process in which anywhere from 1 to 1 billion pores of the skin open and release a fluid that covers the skin. The precise composition of this liquid is a mystery, at least to me, unless you have eaten garlic recently. Perspiration is found in many living species, and a few nonliving ones, although I’m not sure about fish. They probably perspire, but measurements are technically challenging, and it’s hard to see the point. Whatever, this wide pattern of evolutionary conservation suggests that perspiration has some vital function, including some, all, or none of the following, respectively: 1) it provides an outlet for fluids so that an organism won’t explode if something goes wrong with its bladder; 2) it has antiseptic properties, which is why mothers use it to wash your face, although you’d rather they didn’t in public places; 3) under certain lighting conditions it diffracts light in a manner that renders a person invisible, which is helpful in evading predators, such as your boss, an unpleasant relative, or a loan shark; 4) some of it slews off a person (the perspirer) and hits anyone following him (the perspiree), for example during the Tour de France, who undoubtedly find this bit of precipitation refreshing, unless the perspirer’s perspiration contains trace amounts of banned substances that might later appear in the urine of the perspiree (This was one of many defences mounted by Lance Armstrong during his “troubles”, but the tactic fell apart because during the races he was always in the lead, and was unable to propose a mechanism by which perspiration might overcome the laws of physics); 5) it contains pheromones that attract a member of the opposite sex, but only briefly; later your partner becomes habituated to it, which comprises the middle period of a marriage, and finally develops an allergy to it, which can be quickly cured by divorce, murder, or some other method of separating spouses. It should be noted that there is a weak correlation between perspiring and doing work. Perspiration is also correlated with lying. Therefore signs of perspiration may mean you were working, you were not working but are lying about it, you were working and lie about it, or some fourth alternative, such as a rare condition not yet recognised by medical science but will be named for your doctor if it kills you.

Perspiration has been spun off into many derivatives, including:

  • aspire  to intend or plan to perspire
  • respire  to perspire again if it didn’t have the desired effects the first time
  • inspire  to motivate others to perspire
  • conspire  to perspire with at least one other person, usually while participating in a free-time activity such as reproduction, or a plot to overthrow the government
  • expire  to perspire to an excessive degree with fatal consequences
  • transpire to perspire across traditional boundaries between disciplines or genders; another meaning is the brief state of spiritual enlightenment that sometimes follows  heavy perspiration, but prior to the onset of the heart attack.
  • despire an existential Angst related to anxiety about perspiration performance, or a feeling that perspiration has lost its spiritual significance; this can also mean to physically remove the tower and spire of a church, usually as a college prank, then relocate it to somewhere unexpected: the back seat of the convertible that belongs to the head of your department, the breakfast cereal aisle of a grocery store, or the International Space Station.
  • perspiritus  an alcoholic beverage made from fermented perspiration
  • prospire  to perspire professionally
  • perspirosome  the cellular compartment that synthesizes perspiration
  • panperspirum hypothesis  the theory that life on Earth arrived in the form of extraterrestrial perspiration borne by comets, spaceships, or shed by aliens during the Tour de France.
  • Perspi-cola  a soft drink that was marketed very briefly in the 1980s. Stories that the drink contained naturally-produced perspiration is probably an urban legend; over a period of about 20 years, Perpsi-cola chemists had developed a synthetic version that was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. The drink was removed from the market after three days due to its failure to attract a loyal customer base, probably because it tasted disgusting.

PhD  an abbreviation of the German expression “P hoch Drei,” which refers to a mental state of Perpetual Panic and Paranoia.

PhD student  slave

pipeline  the sequential application of many technologies to a scientific problem, forming a sort of artificial digestive tract in which raw materials enter one end and a Wurst-like object emerges at the other. A pipeline is usually constructed by lining up every instrument in the lab in a long row, end to end, in any order you please, so that what emerges from one passes directly into the opening of the next, preferably without human handling. Any technology may be included in the pipeline, including automated X-ray crystallography devices, musical instruments, mousetraps, the lab sprinkler system, and devices people use to alter the three-dimensional structure of their hair. For models of pipelines see the work of Rube Goldberg.

placebo  a treatment or action that has no value whatsoever, since it lacks an active substance that might have some positive effect on an organism’s well-being – a diploma is a good example of a placebo.

planarium  a strange model organism that never dies, but simply shrivels up for a while when food is scarce and then fattens again, and sometimes reproduces, when food is plentiful, resembling the way humans attempt to control their phenotype through various diets. When you attack a planarium with a knife and cut it into up to 256 pieces, each subunit is capable of reproducing an entire organism. The 257th piece is used as food. It is unclear why this hasn’t left the Earth piled in heaps upon heaps of planaria. The best explanation is that there are lots of planaria shriveled up in various locations, waiting for their chance to puff up and achieve world domination.

An illustration of planaria, which reveals some of their difficulties adapting to modern ecosystems, can be found here.

poorly understood  a term used to describe something nobody cared the least bit about, and then our lab came along and showed that it is responsible for everything: cancer, the origins of life, consciousness, and alien abductions.

postdoc  a person in the lab who, after many years of training, is able to understand the odd mumbling sounds made by a group leader and translate them into occupational therapy activities for predocs, technicians, and other lower forms of life, using equipment on hand in the laboratory. The qualifications needed by a postdoc include: dexterity with a bullwhip; the ability to build a gin distillery using laboratory equipment; basic first aid skills, including the ability to reattach limbs on the proper person and correct side of the body; Black Ops training for carrying out sorties against competitors; and the ability to write sentences of at least four words using proper punctuation, then enhance them with 80 or 90 superfluous words to demonstrate a profound, impenetrable intellect. Candidates with any of the additional skills or experience are usually given preference: an internship in a circus (involving the handling of large, aggressive animals); computer hacking (scientific journals), and ventriloquism (when the group leader loses his/her voice or train of thought). (requested by Fatimunnisa Qadri, MDC)

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.

postulate  to proclaim something while standing on a post: a precarious position from which one can easily be knocked off by the wind, a cow, or the shotgun of a rancher who does not look kindly upon trespassers who stand on his posts.

potential drug target  something in a biological system that is not affected by any known drug and probably never will be.

premortal  a phase of life up to and including the moment of death, followed by embalming and a brief nap before hatching as a fully mature zombie.

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.

press release  a shortened form of the expression “press and release:” a description of the muscular activity of the intestines when trying to digest and then expell a piece of science that has been swallowed without chewing.

proboscis   a tissue extending from the front of the face which evolved as a mechanism to probe the space ahead, a bit like a blind person’s cane, or the front bumper of a car. If an animal walked slowly enough and hit an obstacle, it would first detect the impact via the proboscis, which is composed of tissue soft enough to absorb the impact providing the animal is not traveling faster than about 10 cm per second. Upon encountering an obstacle, sensors in the proboscis trigger a reflex that instinctively brakes the rest of the body before it suffers so much damage that insurance companies need to get involved. In many mammalian species this function became redundant through the evolution of whiskers, which is why the species with the longest whiskers tend to have the smallest noses (felines), and vice versa (elephants, whose tiny whiskers are purely ornamental). Derivatives include proboscuity, a habitual and socially offensive behavior in which the proboscis is inserted into places, situations or affairs where it has no business being.

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)

range  a defined finite space whose boundaries are often described by numbers, in which a cow or another free-roaming object, such as a piece of data, wanders aimlessly about in a leisurely and random manner, sometimes stopping to eat something it finds on the ground, such as a boot, a weed, or a dead armadillo, chewing it repetitively for as long as it takes until it can be swallowed. “Ranging from 1 to 5” indicates the position of the fences that border this space, which an item within the range should not cross. Otherwise it risks being electrocuted by the fence or shot by the farmer whose land begins on the other side.

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

reductio ad absurdum  explaining a system or concept to a level simple enough that a human with an average level of education can understand it without the help of a computer. Thus reductio ab absurdum is the guiding principle in writing articles for newspapers or blogs. If even then it is too complex to be understood, run the text through Google Translate using the “pirate speak” setting.

reductionism  to repair a piece of equipment that has already been repaired once using duct tape by applying another layer of duct tape.

reflux  to eject a disgusting substance from your body for a second time by, for example, vomiting. The first time it came out it was efflux. After studying the contents of, for example, the vomit you decided it contained something your body needed, such as a kidney, and tried to return it to its natural environment (influx). The second rejection is the reflux. By this point most people figure out that the body is rejecting the substance and give up. But the literature reports a few cases of triflux, quintiflux, and a pathological condition called millifluxitis.

regulation  In cells, processes involving molecules whose function is to prevent everything from happening at the same time. In governmental affairs, a process involving bureaucrats whose function is to try to prevent anything from happening at all.

reproducibility  the likelihood that something which happened in a certain way in one place will occur again in another; for example, if you are playing golf and hit a hole in one, and then are struck by lightning. This is reproducible if you are struck by lightning a second time, after hitting another hole in one, on a later date, on another course. In science, reproducibility is achieved about this often.

reproduction  any process that permits something to make a replica of itself, nearly always leading to the creation of something of poorer quality than the original – including photocopying, faxing, sexual intercourse, teaching, gossip, and memory. Repeated rounds of reproduction usually distort the outcome to the point that it is unrecognizeable.

respectively  A word put at the end of a list of items which have been scrambled into a sort of puzzle by an author, suggesting a strategy by which reader should reassemble them into groups. If the words were socks, the word “respectively” would function like colors and patterns. An example:

My father, my step-mother and my sister have birthdays in January, June, and May and are aged 59, 27 and 27 respectively.

Decoded, this should be interpreted: “After the divorce, my father ran off with a slut who was younger than my sister.”

sally forth  a more elegant way to say “go”, which should be used as often as possible in scientific papers.

scientific advisory board (SAB)  formerly known as “scientific oversight boards,” or SOBs. The research equivalent of visiting Heads of State. An Inner Circle of scientists who have passed their expiration date and spend their time flying First Class to Five-Star Hotels around the world, listening to stupifying presentations, then recovering by drinking prodigiously in hotel bars, Karaoke bars and other types of bars, then voting to give each other enough money to continue in this lifestyle into perpetuity. Membership is by invitation only; generally when one becomes Director of an Institute one invites the SAB for an evaluation, and as a means of returning the favor the SAB invites the Director onto the SABs of the Institutes of the other members of the SAB.

scientific paper  a highly fictionalized, Hollywood-style account of a scientific project, with a plot that makes it seem as though someone knew what they were doing when embarking on a piece of research and planned the whole thing. There is always a happy end. Members of a laboratory often fail to recognize scientific papers about their own work.

significantly  insignificantly

simple  the quality of being simple. While scientists prefer that things be simple, they don’t like their descriptions of things to sound simple, because people might get the idea that science is simple, and then anyone could do it. So scientists have developed many alternative ways of describing simple things, including the following: “a gratifyingly low degree of complexity, bordering on null,” or “a state of not having achieved, evolved, or developed any apparent structural modularity,” or, “an entity or process which can be described without adding a lot of boring, unnecessary detail, particularly those features or properties that have no effect on the outcome of an experiment.” For those who prefer a single word, the base “simple” can be ornamented with some useless consonants: simplifical, simplificability, or simplificabilical. A word can also be built on some other base whose simple meaning can be deduced by anyone with a thorough knowledge of Latin and classical Greek: aheterocomplificatory, apolymorphological, nonmultifeaturologicistical, unquantiplurifiable, monouniformalogically integrated, etc.

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.

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

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.

sprocket  a wheel-like cog that screws onto the doohickey that fell off the thingamajig.

straightforward  moving ahead in a direct line no matter what the impairment, such as during a sobriety test conducted on the highway.

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.

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

surprisingly  something that really wasn’t surprising to our lab at all; we expected it, but that’s because we’re so much smarter then the rest of you.

synthetic lethality  a situation in which two things, either of which could be borne with non-fatal consequences in one context, combine to kill something in another. For example: a woman might be able to live with her mother, and her husband, but put them together and there’s bound to be a fatality. Or: “I would undress in front of my mother, and undress in front of my wife, but never both at the same time.” (James Hartman, professor extraordinaire, University of Kansas)

systems biology  “…Systems biology is a whole-istic approach to understanding biology; it aims at system-level understanding of biology, and to understand biological systems as a system.” (Reference: http://www.sysbio.de/info/background/WhatIs.shtml)

taken together  is used when a scientists adds up many results and gets a whole that is a thousand or perhaps a million times more than the sum of its parts. In other words, an expression used before pronouncing a wild and baseless exaggeration. An example is the comment made by an astronomer following the 2010 discovery of an exoplanet called Gliese 581g, whose orbit around a distant star put it in a “habitable zone” where water might exist on its surface: “Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent,” Prof. Vogt said during a press briefing. “I have almost no doubt about it.” Any slight inconsistencies in this statement could have easily have been rectified if Prof. Vogt had said, “Taken together” instead of “Personally,” and then scientists would have put his comments in the proper frame of reference. (It should be noted that shortly after his pronouncement, Gliese 581g was deemed likely to be an artifact caused by the telescope, and probably does not exist at all.)

theoretical consideration  something that can safely be ignored without any negative consequences whatsoever.

therefore  the answer to the question, “Wherefore?”

thingamajig  a piece of laboratory equipment whose technical name you can always remember until just the moment you need it, at which point it is always being used by what’s-her-name. You know that the lab has a second thingamajig somewhere – which you call a whatchamacallit so that people will know what you’re talking about, but you can’t find it, either. The conversation that ensues goes like this:

“Have you seen the thingamajig? I really need it.”

“Which thingamajig are you talking about?”

“The one that what’shername is using.”

“Really? I thought she she’d finished with the thingamajig. Why don’t you use the watchamacallit?”

“I can’t find it. I think it’s got a broken doohickey, anyway.”

“Ask what’shisname, he’s fixed a doohickey before, but I think it was the one on the thingamajig.”

thither  the opposite of hither; almost but not quite yon.

truncate  to reduce the size of something so that it will fit into a chest, for example by chopping off its limbs.

ubiquitous  something which is everywhere, all the time, such as a particular molecule, your children’s cell phones, or paperwork.

utter, utterly  an emphatic word, almost always negative, associated with the milk-producing glands of a cow. To say that a competitor’s hypothesis is “utter nonsense” is to imply that it should be chewed up, passed through a bovine digestive tract, and ejected from the scientific literature by squeezing firmly on a large teat. Not to be confused with “otter” or “otterly”.

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

workflow  an idealized schematic diagram of how a scientific project might work in a perfect world, in which labor is divided up among members of a laboratory in a fair and rational manner, to be carried out within a reasonable time frame. In practice, the first step in a workflow is to throw out the workflow.

yon  an abbreviation of the word yonder, which is where you’ll end up if you don’t complete your thesis.

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2 thoughts on “The Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases

  1. Pingback: The Devil’s Dictionary: today featuring the letter “P” | Good Science Writing

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