The Devil’s dictionary, June 26th update

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


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:


intellectual property   the first step in a lawsuit.

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.


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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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