Update to the Devil’s dictionary! Today’s words: neogenesis, crumb, and autophagy

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

Neogenesis   Any process whose aim is to reduce the Earth and the rest of the universe to a Formless Void and then recreate them, usually in an attempt to correct flaws in the original versions.

Crumb   the semi-petrified remains of a small, complex biosphere containing plant and animal matter originating from distant parts of the globe – wheat from Europe, cocoa from South America, and animal fats from God knows where and the rest of us don’t want to. These basic organic constituents are smothered in mounds of complex carbohydrates (sugars) and then forced into cohabitation in a structure called a cookie. This is achieved by kneading them into an amorphous mass, using a glue made of life-threatening quantities of cholesterol, bovine milk, and the blended embryos of birds, stirred but not shaken. The resulting colonies are exposed to extremes of temperature which exterminate all the inhabitants except the thermophiles. After they have thoroughly congealed, hardened and cooled, they are placed on flat surfaces and left out in the open, serving as traps for large mammals. If this fails to induce coronary events in the prey, the cookie aggregates are packed into boxes and distributed to neighbors using the mechanism of Girl Scouts. At some point they will be eaten, leaving only microscopic remnants – the crumbs. Cookie crumbs make up about 50% of the diet of ants and thus play a crucial role in global ecosystems and human life.

Autophagy This term, like 48.93 % of the modern scientific vocabulary, is derived from ancient Greek. Of the rest, 49.7 % was blatantly stolen outright from Latin, leaving a paltry 1.37 % whose origin remains a mystery. The most likely explanation is that these expressions spontaneously appeared out of nowhere, in a paper somewhere, and spread through the literature like viral infections or perhaps transposons. Anyway. The suffix –phage means either to digest or to devour, depending on whether silverware or just the fingers are used. The first component of the word, auto, can refer either an automobile or the person who owns it. Thus their combination into a single word (autophagy) denotes the process of eating a car. Theoretically, autophagy could also mean “to eat oneself” – self-cannibalization – although those who attempt it rarely finish the job, because at some point the mechanisms needed to eat yourself start to digest themselves, and I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine what comes next. Eating one’s own car ought to be termed autoautophagy, but this term does not appear in the literature, implying that most cases of autophagy involve the ingestion of someone else’s car. If you’re going to do it, you should probably do it at night.

At least one reliable case of autophagy has been documented in the scientific record. A car was eaten by Leon Samson, a Greek immigrant to Australia, probably to make up for nutritional deficits in his usual diet of razor blades and light bulbs. A Frenchman named Michel Lotito never ate a car, as far as I can determine, but he did guzzle down 18 bicycles, 15 shopping carts, seven television sets, and a three-wheeled Cessna 150 airplane, although not necessarily in that order and not in one sitting. For his efforts, the Guiness Book of World Records gave Lotito an award, but he ate that as well.

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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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