Today’s updates in the Devil’s Dictionary

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


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

p value  a numerical value used in statistics to shows whether life is a random, meaningless sequence of events, or whether the universe really is out to get you. If an experiment doesn’t work out, the p value can help as you try to decide whether to repeat it, or give up science and become a sheep herder. The p value shows that no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. Suppose, for example, when you redo an experiment you produce some antimatter. Even a very small amount might blow up the galaxy. This hasn’t happened before, as far as we know, which means the p value for antimatter is probably very low, less than one. But until we get some data, the number might jump up into the millions, with no warning whatsoever. It is easier to estimate the p value of other things, for example, the chance that your group leader will be struck on the head by a bowling ball that a passenger flushed down the toilet of an airplane. Here the p value will be higher than 0, since all group leaders die someday (100%), and in a few cases the cause will be a bowling ball. Start by calculating the maximum number of days your group leader might live under optimal circumstances (daystotalgroupleadermightlive). Skew the figures a little bit to account for the fact that Tuesday is the most popular day for dying. Throw in a few other numbers just for fun, and then start calculating. The result should be p = approximately 1 / daystotalgroupleadermightlive. If the bowling ball does not descend that day, you will have to recalculate the p value the next day, because every day that passes without a fatality reduces the total number of days before death is inevitable, (daystotalgroupleadermightlive – 1). Since p is inversely correlated with this number, p will get a little higher every day, just like the rising, anticipatory mood in the lab. The same approach can be used to figure out the p value of a zombie apocalypse (hint: 1 / daysmaximumuntilzombieapocalypse). Since no one knows the value that should be inserted for daysmaximumuntilzombieapocalypse, you can insert different numbers until you get a p value that pleases you. Note that these two formulae can be combined, somehow, to account for the possibility that your group leader will be one of the first victims of the zombie apocalypse.

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.

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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