The Devil’s dictionary, March 22, 2018

Finally more entries in the Devil’s Dictionary! Today’s words:  fixing, biomass, drift, and skeletal muscle

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2018 by Russ Hodge

fixing  In basic research this term generally refers to chemical methods of preparing a living creature or one of its parts, such as a cell or a tissue, but also a complete organism such as a group leader, so that all of its biological processes are immobilized at the moment of fixation. This is useful if you want to examine the mechanisms that underlie a behavior you do not understand, such as the organism’s refusal to give you feedback on your latest paper. It has the slight disadvantage of killing the object of research. In clinical science, “fixing” usually refers to methods of removing the reproductive organs of an animal so that it won’t engage in uncontrolled, promiscuous acts that would lead to lots of offspring. Given a choice between the experimental and clinical types, most organisms would probably prefer the first.

biomass  is used in two ways: 1) the “weight of life.” If you weigh a living organism such as a human being directly before and after its sacrifice, the biomass is the difference. The biomass is just that part of an organism’s weight contained in the Life Force. Some distinguish it from the soul, whose weight must then be subtracted from the Life Force total. If the death produces a ghost, its weight must be subtracted as well. This leaves a biomass that is usually very small, about .000001 grams, although some scientists maintain that this represents the weight of the last breath instead of the Life Force. Others believe that the Life Force and the last breath are the same thing, particularly if you have been eating garlic. If the weight after death is heavier than before, then you’ve waited too long to perform the measurement; the extra weight comes from bacteria and other decomposers which have settled into the organism for the feast and begun to reproduce. People who don’t believe in a Life Force, a soul, or a ghost are not only sort of boring, but they have a more boring definition of biomass: 2) the weight of every living thing in an environment, measured after you’ve stacked it in a big pile.

drift  a situation in which the younger generations of a species pack up and move away from the herd, taking their genes along with them. At some point youngsters get fed up with parental control, stuff a bunch of clothes in a backpack, and head off aimlessly on a railway pass, leaving its parents to wonder whether they have taken along a toothbrush. The young generations keep traveling until they have spent all their money, find an ashram that suits their nature, or both. When they reproduce their children go through the cycle all over again, leaving the ashram for other parts.

skeletal muscle  long fibers made of fused muscle cells that connect various regions of the brain to different points on the skeleton, turning the body into a sort of marionette and creating the illusion that we have conscious control over it, although some people obviously don’t, at least not their mouths. Skeletal muscle is the foundation of voluntary movement by animals. Before it evolved, animal movement was strictly involuntary – if a pet or child were in the way, you had to pick it up, throw or kick it to make it move. The arrival of skeletal muscle was highly practical because it permitted people to make the trip from the sofa to the refrigerator themselves; you no longer had to spend all your time fetching beer for them.

Skeletal muscle promoted the development of some further evolutionary adaptions while retarding others. Experts believe that it delayed the evolution of language because skeletal muscle allowed animals to use the digits of their forelimbs to point at things. Pointing served all the important functions of language that a species needed except for those that required head-butting or biting. But it also led to negative selection, because having control over your finger made it possible to poke someone else in the eye, and you could no longer blame such behavior on the absence of skeletal muscle. This often led to negative selection through the loss of the finger in question, as well as whatever functions it served in the survival and reproduction of an individual.

grey matter  another term for scientific publications.


If you liked the Devil’s Dictionary, you’ll probably also enjoy:

Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

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


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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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