Yet another update to the Devil’s dictionary!!!

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2016 by Russ Hodge

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.

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.

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.

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)



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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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