See the complete Devil’s Dictionary of Scientific Words and Phrases here.
in situ an experiment that can be done sitting down, preferably in the comfort of your own home, without having to get up, allowing you to do science while remaining within reach of the TV remote and alcoholic beverages, although it is permissible to have other people bring you things. An example of an in situ experiment is to extract organic material from your belly button for use in a metagenomics experiment. Another is to stare fixedly at a computer screen for as long as possible without blinking, repeating this several times, and then taking an on-line eyesight test to determine the degree to which your eyesight has worsened. At that point you can order new glasses via the Internet and have them delivered to your door.
fontanelle a gap in the skull of newborn humans that was originally used for whistling and snorkeling. It could also be used to add or remove parts of the brain as a means of enhancing the learning process. Nowadays the fontanelle has changed dimensions to the point that it is almost exactly the size of a USB port, in anticipation of the day in the near future when knowledge will be transferred via flash drives.
proboscis a tissue extending from the front of the face which probably evolved as a mechanism to probe the space ahead, a bit like a blind person’s cane, or the front bumper on your car. If you walked slowly enough and hit an obstacle, you would first detect the impact via the proboscis, which was soft enough to absorb an impact providing you weren’t traveling faster than about 10 cm per second, which would trigger a reflex that instinctively brakes the rest of the body before it suffered so much damage that insurance companies needed to get involved.
icthyology the study of the religions and belief systems of fish.
fluke a case in which the tail of a whale appears spontaneously, unexpectedly, and inexplicably in the middle of any laboratory experiment or procedure or some other place where you do not typically expect to find one, for example in a test tube full of ribosomes, or in a yeast culture, or on a highway in Kansas, or in your sock drawer.
flagellum a whip-like structure that arose in early prokaryotes as a mechanism by which they could express displeasure by beating on their neighbors. Because early microbes had not yet discovered the principles of Newtonian physics, they were perplexed when this activity caused an equal and opposite reaction: beating your neighbors also pushed you away from them, which was usually desirable, at least until they learned to behave, and had the added benefit of bringing you into contact with more types of organisms that you could beat. In the long term this caused the environment to adjust to your basic desires, rather than the other way around.
The advent of multicellular organisms had two major effects on the structure and functions of flagella: 1) it meant that neighboring cells began to exclusively beat each other, because they were stuck together, leading to a relationship resembling marriage, and 2) flagella initially caused problems of orientation, because in essence the organism had lots of rowers, each of whom rowed in whatever direction he or she pleased. The development of mechanisms that coordinated the beating behavior of flagella in multiple cells had a survival advantage: if rowing carried you away from a source of food, you could steer back toward it. This led to the evolution of social hierarchies, such as dictatorships, in populations of cells, giving one cell the decision-making power over other cells in determining the direction that they should row. From that point it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to the modern human brain.
funghi a foodstuff that originally evolved as an organelle of Pizza Rustica, but then underwent a sort of metastatic process through which fungi wandered off the plate, into the forest, and adapted in ways that permitted growth in moist soil. This had health benefits for pizza eaters, because to get the best tasting funghi they had to get off the sofa and go for walks outside.
parsimony a basic principle in science which involves trying to keep things simple. This can only be achieved in a scientist’s early years, before life gets cluttered by events such as matrimony. At that point parsimony becomes very difficult, and in the alimony phase it is completely impossible.
If you like the Devil’s Dictionary, you will probably enjoy these older posts:
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.