The Devil’s Dictionary: today featuring the letter “P”

Today’s entries in the Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases all start with the letter P:

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.

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 will be 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)

If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you will probably enjoy these older posts:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

Ontogeny recapitulates sobriety: from the Archaeal origins of life to the pinnacle of evolution: a PhD

Plus the other pieces in the categories “satire”, “science cabaret,” and “hilarious moments in science communication.” And there are, of course, many serious pieces on the site.

Feel free to pass along the link to your fellow science nerds! And, of course, quote the Devil’s Dictionary – just remember the reference! All material here is copyrighted Russ Hodge.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example

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