The Devil’s dictionary, June 26th update

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


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.

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.

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.

regulation  In cells, a range of mechanisms 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.

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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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