The Devil’s dictionary, getting ready for the new year…

Stay tuned in the coming year when the Devil’s dictionary will expand to include comments on STYLE… including the secret to writing a brilliant paper even when you don’t have any results…

Today’s entries in the Devil’s Dictionary include consciousness, coconut crab, Calvin cycle, and more…

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

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

consciousness  a mental state in which one is not only aware of sensations and events, but is aware enough of being aware of them that one finds something to complain about.

Calvin cycle  a setting that used to be included on washing machines, at the hottest end of the range of cycles, representing the steps required to cleanse a person (or his or her clothing) of all sin. Basically the water was heated at a constant rate inside the machine until it surpassed the boiling point and, with no egress, continued until God stopped it, through an explosion or another calamity, such as punching the rotating drum through the outer metal shell and usually the wall of the washroom, taking with it anything and anyone in its way, or until the owner was pronounced dead, upon which God would take care of the matter Himself. Named for the infamous French theologian John Calvin, who routinely used washing machines as instruments of torture for the same purpose, alongside public burnings and other manifestations of his faith.

coconut crab  an enormous arthropod at the Humvee end of the scale of crabs. This species used to be prevalent throughout Indonesia and other areas of the Pacific, but is nowadays experiencing a rapid decline through the incursion of other species that have dramatically reduced the availability of parking spaces. In desperation coconut crabs sometimes park in beds or sleeping bags, leading to travel advisories for voyagers to these parts of the world.

From the tip of its claws to the back end, technically known as the “butt end,” an adult coconut crab can span nearly a meter, although the claws themselves may be three or four meters long, which is hard to understand unless some type of folding is involved. In an amazing coincidence, coconut crabs have a diet consisting mainly of coconuts, so it’s a good thing their claws are powerful enough to crack the hard shells. Evolutionary biologists believed that the species discovered this capacity by accident – how could they have known that there was something edible inside a coconut? – probably as the result of a mishap that occurred during a bowling tournament. When coconuts became scarce, the crabs have also been known to eat Amelia Earhart.

chemosmosis  to strictly follow the rules of chemistry while carrying out the process of smosis, rather than performing it any which-way, which is still widely practiced although people ought to know better. Smosis is divided into endosmosis, the inward-directed form of smosis, which is considered more polite, and exosomosis, which projects the smosis outwards and is unacceptable in many civilized contexts.

glomerulus  a structure in the kidney where blood vessels come to dead ends when the developing embryo becomes too exhausted to finish linking them to each other; instead, it ties them up in a hasty knot and hides the ugly mess under a cap-like structure called the Bowman’s capsule, which is shaped exactly like a Soyuz spacecraft and is about as roomy for what has to fit inside. In essence, the glomerulus is to the blood vessel system what metal or plastic tips are to shoelaces. In contrast to these devices, which are subject to regulatory practices in the manufacturing industry, the glomerulus always leaks. This releases liquid from the blood and dumps it into the kidneys, which don’t want to deal either and simply pass it along to the bladder. There the liquid is stored until the bladder is full and has to be emptied. If this process took a little longer, the contents of the bladder would ferment and provide a source of alcohol. It is possible that in the past, this happened in animals that had much larger bladders, but this feature was removed through natural selection, as drunken animals make easier prey. If the glomerulus were entirely closed, the body’s water would be recycled. As things stand, mammals must continually take in and release water, which is incredibly inefficient, but at least it ensures that water returns to the environment so that other organisms have something to drink.

hypoteneuse  a hypothesis so completely ridiculous that to publish it is the equivalent of an act of professional suicide by hanging.

induce  the stem –duce derives from the historical title “duke” or “duce”. In ancient times this title was given to the person placed at the front of a march or parade, usually heading toward an opposing army, carrying a symbol of office that atttracted attention and enemy fire. This might be a flag, a trumpet, a baton, a trombone, one of those little cars driven by Shriners – anything that made a good target. This would discourage the opposing army from firing in the direction of the King, who like all good tyrants would show his solidarity with the folk by wearing inconspicuous clothing and mixing in with the masses. The title of Duke (in some regions pronounced dunce) was publicly heralded as a great honor, and was considered so at least by the person receiving it. In some cases plebes were invited to compete for the honor, and thus was born the expression “to duke something out.” It was awarded to the inductee in a ceremony called an induction. During the ceremony all sorts of statements were made about the exemplary character of this person, basically a tactic to shame him into acquiring one.

Once the title had been awarded the inductee was expected to demonstrate his worthiness by exhibiting exemplary aspects of character, or conduct, which meant all sorts of unusual mannerisms such as marching straight ahead when fired upon, upon which everyone was expected to follow, with the exception of the king, who generally showed respect for his subjects by allowing them to pass by toward the front. If during this process there occurred an attack from the rear, then the duke would be quickly conducted through the crowd at a rapid rate to assume his rightful position.

This notion of “start” or “begin” has been retained in modern scientific usage, taking the stem duce (in other words, using it to induce a word), and adding on whatever prefixes and suffixes come in handy for a given situation. This has advantages for lexicographers, relieving them from the burden of inventing a lot of words, which is so difficult they usually resort to stealing them from some other language instead, in violation of all sorts of intellectual property laws. In fact, how often do we really need a truly original word? In most cases an old one can be bent or warped to get you there, or at least in the general vicinity.

Thus the term induce acquires the meaning, “to cause something to start to start, or to start a cascade of events in which an unruly gang will follow.” The direction is irrelevant provided the herd all begins to move in a common direction. There lingers a connotation that under normal circumstances the flock would never do so without being motivated through the promise of a great reward, which it probably won’t live long enough to receive, or the threat of a great punishment, which it probably will live just long enough to appreciate, although barely, which occurs if it refuses to behave according to the wishes of a totalitarian dictator or scientist, whichever happens to be in charge of the situation at hand. If the inductee tries to hide within a crowd, he first has to be deduced from it, which means detected against a noisy background. Then he can be pushed forward, or produced. If force is required to keep him in that position, one can always resort to tape to keep him there – to duct him. A person can be stripped of the honors, or unduced, and if later he is called to serve again in the position, this reduces him. If that should happen but cannot be accomplished, for example because the duke who has replaced him hasn’t died yet, then the duke remains unreduced while he waits, a period which generally never lasts too long.

polyploid  derived from combining the terms polyp – an ugly protrusion from a surface which ought to be smooth – and loid, which is a strip of metal used to open a car or some other enclosed space that the user of the loid can be arrested for entering. Thus a polyploid is a device to slice open polyps, or separate them from a surface to which they have become attached. This should restore the surface to more or less its original condition, although you may have to apply a new coat of varnish to hide the scratches made while inserting the polyploid under the polyp to pry it up.

reflex  the best way to understand a reflex is by using a diagram of the human body, ideally a diagram of your own. If you don’t have such a diagram yet, briefly go outside. Find a relatively empty, flat surface somewhere on the ground, such as the middle of the road. Briefly lie down on that spot, facing upwards, which should place your back to the ground; if not, repeat the procedure until this is the case. Be sure to smile. Then get up, go inside, log onto Google Earth, and zoom in on your coordinates until you see your image. Print this out and cut carefully along the outline until you have your personal diagram.

Now we are ready to approach the topic of reflexes. A reflex is a process that takes place in one specific part of the body whenever a stimulation is applied to another part, whether or not you want it to – because reflexive circuits entirely bypass the brain. For example, hitting your kneecap with a hammer will cause you to kick the person who has struck you, unless the blow is so strong that it shatters the kneecap entirely – you may need to try several times, raising and lowering the force, until the stimulus has reached the appropriate strength. Hitting your thumb with a hammer, on the other hand, will cause the mouth to open and utter signals of distress. A blow directly to the head will cause the knees to buckle and drop you to the ground. Try this across the entire body until you have mapped all the reflexes stimulated by hammer blows. Then measure the effects of other types of stimuli. Stimulating the ears with the sound of a bell will trigger salivation in the mouth, for example. A stimulation of the ears through the entry of a bee or wasp, on the other hand, will cause you to run around and flap your arms, as if trying to fly away. All of these are reflexes.

sessile colonial cnidarian  a quantity of cnid – a jelly-like mass, shaped into a coherent form using a device such as a jello mold – which has colonized a place where it does not naturally occur, such as a sofa, and thereafter resists all efforts to remove it, citing the timeless justification given by all colonialists: that it is simply exercising its natural right of eminent domain.

 

If you enjoyed the Devil’s Dictionary, you might also like the following:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

On the publication of “Remote sensing” by the magazine Occulto

and other entries in the category Satire.

Published by

russhodge

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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