Time for another new entry in the Devil’s dictionary!

Today’s words:  Richter scale, olfactory, olafantory, osmosis, and imbibe

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2017 by Russ Hodge.


Richter scale  (named after Russia pianist Stanislav Richter)  a sequence of eight specific tones somewhere near the bass end of a concert grand piano. When played in the proper order at a precise rhythm, the scale produces long, overlapping sound waves which propegate through the Earth and intersect at a point 1240.8 km from the piano. There they intersect to cause a harmonic dissonance whose frequency is complementary to a structure commonly found in fault lines, leading to seismic disturbances. The first use of the term dates from a 1958 performance by Richter in Sofia. The titles of the works he played have been lost, but at one point he ventured into the bass and applied a bit more sostenuto to a passage than was his habit. A few minutes later a series of tremors completely wiped out a distant village. Conspiracy theorists hold that Richter was a part of a Soviet experiment to weaponize the concert grand piano, but there is little evidence to support this. In 1998 mathematicians at MIT submitted a paper to the journal Nature claiming that they had solved the scale, but their results were immediately classified.

olfactory  originally derived from “Olaf’s factory,” operated by a Medieval cheesemaker from Norway, whose cheese stank so badly that Olaf and the members of his family progressively lost their sense of smell, in response to which they made the cheese even stronger. Ultimately the stench rising from the factory reached an intensity that had the effect of a physical force, creatig high-pressure atmospheric conditions that altered the weather and affected many aspects of regional ecosystems. Local species, including lots of humans and the entire native elephant population of Norway, had to adapt or flee the area to avoid symptoms such as nausea, temporary insanity, and blackouts while operating heavy machinery. There were also beneficial effects: sinus conditions be cleared up even through a very brief exposure to the smell, and people who had been pronounced dead were sometimes revived for a few days.

Whenever a westerly wind became strong enough, the smell drifted over the border into Sweden, prompting a number of retaliatory military incursions, all of which were repelled by the smell long before coming close enough to the factory to destroy it. Today the cheese is classified as a weapon of mass destruction, in a category shared by biological agents, nerve gases, and nuclear weapons, and has been banned under various international treaties.

In biology the term has paradoxically been coined to encompass all the mechanisms of smell: beginning when external molecules called olafactors force their way into the bodily cavities of an olafactee, usually after bypassing the gasket-like structures that protect the nose and mouth. Really smelly molecules such as garlic, which have a pointy prow on one side, can also enter by piercing the eyes, ears, pores and that other bodily opening I am too polite to name here. From that point they progress along tube-like passages until they reach a gas chromatograph installed in the brain. The brain, which has just as much difficulty interpreting gas chromatography data as anyone else, enters a state of disarray that it interprets as smell. Olafactors are ranked on a five-point scale: 1) pleasant, 2) tolerable, 3) bad 4) indescribably bad, and 5) fatal.

olafantory  pertaining to olafants: a hybrid made by fusing the genome of an elephant with that of an ant. After the creation of the first olafant, which was the result of a mix-up in the laboratory, scientists discovered that the structure of their chromosomes makes this fairly easy to do. So far, olafants have not been found in nature, for reasons that are not completely clear, which means they can only be produced artificially through genetic engineering techniques. This was exciting the first few times, because it was hard to predict what would grow out of your cell culture. But olafants turned out to be quite pesky creatures, and enthusiasm quickly waned to the point that it has become hard to find them, except on-line.

osmosis  does not derive from the ancient term osmo (which means “smell” or “thrust”, or both in the case of very strong smells), as has been commonly assumed. Recent philatological studies indicate that the term is actually coined from the name Mosis, a mythological figure from the time of the ancient Hebrews, an illegitimate child who, immediately after birth, for reasons that are not totally clear, was sent on a voyage downriver in a very small vessel of some sort, perhaps to serve in the capacity of a spy, but after being kidnaped along the way by a sect he succombed to one of the worst cases of Stockholm syndrome on record. Over time Mosis became brainwashed to the point that he he was elected President of the cult, winning the electoral but not the popular vote, at which point he became genuinely unhinged and unleashed seven different weapons of mass destruction on the city of his origins, including a flood that most modern historians attribute to the bombing of the Aswan dam. Where the Hebrews got the bombs is unclear – perhaps from the Chinese, or from Atlantis. There is no evidence that they were nuclear in nature.

Amosis means the opposite of osmosis and is named for Mosis’ brother Amos, whose function in the stories was as a sort of control group for his sibling, an Abbott to Mosis’ Costello. Whenever Mosis claimed that God was speaking directly to him, for example, Amos would say things like, “Are you sure it’s not just a malfunction of your parietal lobe? Have you been taking your meds?”

For centuries the term wandered around Europe on a sort of extended backpacking trip, trying to find itself, until it finally acquired its modern meaning for biology or physics. The French were the first to tame it, as part of a great influx of vocabulary that was necessary upon the arrival of the Baroque period. The original term was au mosé and was restricted to perfume, which was rediscovered in the Baroque period. Scholars knew that something like it had existed in ancient Egypt and believed, for some reason, it had been one of the seven weapons of mass destruction unleashed by Mosis, a type of chemical warfare. This interpretation might have arisen because women were using lots and lots of perfume which is understandable given the fact that no one bathed during the period between 1130 and 1730.

At the time the cloud that accompanied someone wearing perfume was wall-like and would thrust you backwards, unless you were trapped and couldn’t escape. At that point the perfume molecules would penetrate the outer layer of skin and begin an assault on individual cells. Cell membranes offered a first line of defense, but eventually a point known as the perfume pressure limit (ppl) was reached. This triggered an opening of membrane channels called schnozzoporins, which allow perfume molecules to pass through the membrane in exchange for water. At some point all the water is replaced and the system is saturated. Astoundingly, most of the body’s metabolic processes function nearly as well when supplied by perfume as with water, depending on what brand is used.

In its current meaning in physics and biology, the term osmosis refers to just the downriver portion of the Mosis story. So osmosis in a cell, for example, is any process in which an object embarks on a journey downstream, is hindered by some obstacle such as a kidnaping by bandits along the route, who are subsequently subdued in some heroic way, permitting the protagonist to reach the other side. In the case of the mythical Mosis the barrier was a social and political one, but in biology the term usually refers to a physical barrier that something needs to pass through. For example, as it is expelled from the body, urine must overcome the obstacle of air to reach its destination, through a special form of osmosis known as pissing.

liquid chronotography  any system that uses water or another liquid, such as root beer or blood, as a basis for measuring time. Methods of torture that involve a regular dripping sound, for example, are examples of liquid chronotography. Not to be confused with liquid chromatography, which means painting with water colors.

imbibe  to drink, but in a polite and refined way, without slurps, burps, or other forms of musical accompaniment. Exbibe is to move fluid in the opposite direction: to eject it from the mouth as spit, or projectile vomiting, but only if the act is hidden by a handkerchief, or cleverly concealed in some other way, and only when it is not intended as a political statement. The analogous terms for solids are ingest and exgest. There the root gest originally derives from the word gesture, whose meaning dates back to a time when cannibalism was still common and considered a sport like geocaching. At that time offering a person your hand – a gesture – was a form of greeting taken to mean, “Please take a bite.” At some point a bright cannibal realized this could be prevented by wearing a metal ring, which would break teeth before any flesh was penetrated. This is the origin of the practice of kissing the rings of popes and other royalty.


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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 https://goodsciencewriting.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/ghosts-models-and-meaning-in-science/

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