More updates in the Devil’s dictionary

All the best for 2020!
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today’s entries: tohuwabohu, vegan, zither, and zoology.

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

all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2020 by Russ Hodge

tohuwabohu  a state of absolute chaos, similar to the state of the very early universe, or the laboratory after a party.

vegan  an extraterrestrial being from a planet that orbits the star Vega, in the constellation Lyra. The biochemistry of their world is so fundamentally different from that of our own that vegan refugees have a hard time finding anything edible on Earth.

zither  an annoying instrument which only functions after being pounded on, pinched or stroked. While this is also the case for most other equipment, true zithers are seldom seen in modern laboratories. If you’re asked for one, first determine whether your colleague has a lisp and is actually asking for “scissors”.

zoology  the scientific study of zoos, a field which has produced remarkable insights into interactions between predators and their prey – particularly crocodiles, polar bears, zookeepers and small children, although not necessarily in the same cage at the same time. A number of general principles have emerged from zoological research: cotton candy should not be sold within the grasp of great apes, and people should not climb over fences to take selfies with lions. And anyone who makes rude faces at an orangutan or disturbs a shark by knocking on the glass may well get what is coming to him. In recent years zoology has taken on the wider theme of studying any interaction between species that have been removed from their native environments and sequestered together in an unnatural habitat, such as a marriage.

NEW: Need that perfect birthday gift for a scientist? Get your printed copy of the Devil’s dictionary here. I’m also planning to publish a book of the cartoons and a new calendar this year.

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New updates to the Devil’s dictionary!!!

today’s entries: blastulation, chorion, latebra, and reproductive value.

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2019 by Russ Hodge


blastulation  A process in an early stage of embryogenesis whereby cells form a hollow, balloon-like sphere (or blastula, although any Latin nerd will tell you it ought to be called a blastulum, just as the singular form of spatula ought to be spatulum). In ancient times, before evolution got things straightened out, blastulas (or blastula, depending on your stance on the spatula/spatulum issue) often suffered the fate of balloons being overinflated. They blasted apart, hence the name. Then evolution produced gastrulation, which had basically the function of adding extra layers to the balloon so that it could expand to the size of a whole animal without exploding.

chorion  The yucky, skin-like envelope still left on the surface of an egg after the shell has been peeled off, if you didn’t properly follow the manufacturer’s protocol for boiling an egg. Whether the chorion is also there before the egg has been boiled is a matter of intense controversy among chorionologists. One school holds that it is indeed there, while the other maintains that the chorion is an artifact that arises through the process of boiling, like the skin that forms on boiling milk. The question has not been resolved because so far, all attempts to peel unboiled eggs have resulted in a state of affairs technically known as a mess.

latebra  The white stuff in an egg – in other words, everything except for the yolk, the shell, the chorion, parasites, other visitors, GPS tracking devices, or any foreign entities you might find there. Whether the latebra is white before you open the egg is a philosophical question on a par with the light-in-the-refrigerator debate.

reproductive value  A quantitative value assigned to females which represents the number of children they will still have once they have reached a particular age. For a female aged x, for example, the reproductive value would be represented as Vx. If the female is aged x + 3, then the reproductive value would usually be lower, unless she is a late starter, or has yet to attract a partner, or has an unenthusiastic partner, or is taking potent fertility drugs, or her partner is taking such drugs, at which point things get rather unpredictable and the formula becomes more complex. The reproductive value also depends on the species in question, and whether the “3” represents years, months, or minutes; in any case the value should be adjusted by subtracting the number of children the female had during the 3 years, months or minutes that have passed, yielding a formula something like Vx + 3 = Vx– y, where y = the number of children she could have had during that period, although if she bore twins this should be corrected to 2y, triplets 3y, octuplets 8y, etc.


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as well as the serious pieces in the categories Teaching and training, etc.




Number 300!!!!

Dear friends,

Thanks to all of you who have been following this blog over the years. I’m convinced that many scientists across the world would be interested in the site if they only knew about it – if you’ve enjoyed it, please spread the word among all of your contacts!

For this very special 300th post, I spent some time learning editing software and revamped some animations – and added a new one. I know – it’s dangerous to get mixed up in politics. But if a world leader decides to make pseudo-scientific statements, the gloves come off. Enjoy!!

and last but certainly not least…


Why did the chicken cross the road?

Call for research applications

Recently the European Research Council opened a series of calls for groups aiming to solve a number of classic, fundamental questions that have perplexed scientists throughout the ages. Interdisciplinary approaches were welcome; no restrictions were placed on the composition of research teams or the methods to be employed.

Below are some representative applications submitted under Topic 12: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”


Cancer research

Cancer remains an enormous threat to human health, with 9.6 million deaths reported world-wide in 2018. Mortality is most often caused by aggressive metastases, which occur when cells migrate from a tumor, traverse the circulatory system and invade other tissues. While the immune system recognizes and eliminates most cells with metastatic potential, some manage to colonize target tissues and eventually disrupt their functions. In an analogous process, chickens may also migrate from their points of origin and traverse the circulatory system. A few escape elimination by automobiles and make it to the other side of the road, where they frequently engage in disruptive behavior. In some of these fowl, tumors have been detected, at levels that should not necessarily be considered non-trivial. This project will exploit the close homology between the causative mechanisms and behavior of chickens and metastatic cancer cells, in hopes of understanding their ability to escape immuno- and vehicular surveillance with the aim of identifying new targets and novel approaches for therapies.



The canonical Wnt signaling pathway influences a number of processes crucial to the development of embryonic organs by targeting complexes which would otherwise degrade cytoplasmic beta-catenin, thus preventing it from localizing to the nucleus and activating target genes. Recently a knock-down of Wnt in chickens was shown to result in embryonic lethality, and as a consequence a total inhibition of road-crossing activity by adult hens and roosters. Our lab has shown that neither canonical nor non-canonical Wnt signaling offers a complete explanation for this association. This suggests that cells possess a hitherto undetected pathway by which Wnt exerts an influence on gene expression programs. Elucidation of this signaling cascade may resolve questions related to the development of embryonic tissues and the disruptions of developmental programs that lead to the rise of cancer stem cells, ornery chickens and other phenotypes.



2004 saw the completion of the first draft of the genome of Gallus gallus – otherwise known as the chicken – providing researchers with the complete DNA sequence of their first bird. They immediately began trying to separate the meat from the bones of an organism that has long been a main course on the menu of models for biomedical research. The chicken has more chromosomes than humans, partially accounting for extra features such as feathers, beaks, and packing its embryos in eggshells. But presently only 18,346 coding genes have been identified, perhaps accounting for noticeable deficits in their cognitive abilities. Our group recently carried out a comprehensive review of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) related to chickens that have appeared in peer-reviewed publications. We identified 712 gene variants significantly associated with mortality in road-crossing chickens compared to a control group of survivors. Interestingly, we also found a correlation between 5-week survival and susceptibility to various pathogens such as avian flu, perhaps because the longer a bird lives, the more likely it is to acquire an infection. These findings have implications in breeding programs, which may have to choose between extending the lifespans of birds and creating pandemics that cost millions of human lives.


Evolutionary biology

Road-crossing behavior has been observed in birds since the appearance of roads, somewhere around the beginning of recorded history. This activity is fraught with danger, as it makes the bird susceptible to death by horses, camels, elephants, automobiles, Roombas, and various other participants in stampedes. Yet the persistence of road crossing implies that it has some value for survival or reproduction. One possibility is that it promotes diversity within populations that would otherwise experience excessive inbreeding – hens living across the road are less likely to belong to a rooster’s brood. Natural selection through roads has caused distinct species of birds to adapt in different ways. Some developed flight; others hop along electrical lines. Chickens continue to cross roads the old-fashioned way; perhaps they have adapted by simply laying more eggs, ensuring that populations will survive despite significant decimations as road kill. In a few species, such as geese, traffic regulations seem to have become integrated into genetically programmed behavior that prompts them to take advantage of crosswalks and traffic lights. A similar phenomenon is observed in frogs and deer, which tend to cross roads at places where warning signs have been mounted, but these examples are most likely cases of convergent evolution rather than reflecting the principle of common descent.


Structural biology

The giant muscle protein titin is an essential component of sarcomeres, piston-like structures that expand and contract to give muscle fibers their elasticity. Without titin, organisms would basically be lumps of protoplasm, unable to cross roads or anything else without the application of some external force. Our lab uses the chicken as a model system to study the 244 domains which make up the titin protein, which partially unfold through the mechanical forces placed on sarcomeres. We are investigating the possibility that mutations cause truncated forms of the molecule that shorten the stride of chickens and thus result in higher mortality when they cross roads.


more to come soon…

The Devil’s dictionary returns!

more entries in the Devil’s Dictionary: today including barb, barber, blennogenous, etc.

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2019 by Russ Hodge

barb  is commonly used in two ways:
1. as the short form of Barbara: a Barbie doll that has finally emerged from puberty and reached adulthood. Given the rather vague nature of the anatomy of these creatures, usually only experts can tell when this has occurred.

2. one of the hair-like projections emerging from the spine of a feather. What keep the barbs from sprouting off in all directions like the tail of a cat or a toilet brush are smaller structures on barbs. The absence of these features in cats and toilet brushes impedes their ability to fly, at least without help. In a feather, barbs are kept aligned by barbules, which are smaller projections sprouting from a barb. A barbicule is an even smaller projection that sprouts from a barbule. After that, it’s barbicules all the way down.

barber  a person or mechanism (such as a molecule, a robot, or duct tape) that attaches the barbs to a feather or removes the barbs from a person’s head. In some cases both occur, for example if a person’s head is shaved prior to being tarred and feathered. In casual speech, “barber” is sometimes used to refer to people who trim barbels, which are the whiskers of catfish, but the proper designation is barbeler. This should not be confused with a barbeller, which means a person who assembles barbells or routinely uses them in a job, such as breaking legs for a loan shark.

barognosis   the ability to sense and respond to pressure. Some people lack this sense, or progressively lose it with age; they refuse to budge no matter what type of pressure you apply. The term for this condition is barognosticism, and its practitioners are barognostics.

blennogenous  a more refined word for “snotty”, as in, “Don’t get blennogenous with me, young man!” Blennogeny refers to the progeny of snot, namely everything expelled in a sneeze. Blennogenophony refers to synchronized sneezing, an aesthetic performance so far only popular in New York, where it will hopefully remain quarantined. The most highly developed form is the blennogenosymphony, which common decency prevents me from describing here. Really, one must draw the line somewhere.

endogenous rhythm   The natural cycle of biology and behavior of an organism when it’s not prompted to activity by some external force, such as a complaint by a spouse, the closing time of a bar, jackhammers out on the street, or the arrival of hordes of relatives – not necessarily in that order. Humans exhibit endogenous behavior on holidays that are not accompanied by lots of baking, such as President’s day.

larvivore   an organism that eats larva, usually on purpose. Nearly all humans are unwitting larvivores, particularly those who buy foods that have been religiously protected from pesticides, or who fail to clean out the kitchen cabinets at regular intervals.

residual volume  a little reserve of air at the bottom of the lungs that remains after you think you’ve expelled it all – like the gasoline that remains in a car’s tank after the needle hits red. No matter how hard you exhale, there’s always just a little more – ask any tuba player.

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The Devil’s dictionary updates

more entries in the Devil’s Dictionary: today including applanate, apterygial, cyanophil, onychium, mystax, and Elmer’s organs

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2019 by Russ Hodge

applanate an adjective used to describe an organism or ecosystem that has been flattened, such as the turtles my grandmother used to run over with her car, microbiomes living on chairs, spiders caught out in the open, or Western Kansas after a tornado.

apterygial   a category comprising animals without wings or without fins. Thus the Animal Kingdom can be divided into apterygials (including most humans, at least those I know, and housepets such as dogs, cats, sheep, cows, and aardvarks, but not parrots, chickens or ostriches) and anapterygials. Anapterygials can be further subdivided into winged anapterygials that do not have fins, and finned anapterygials that do not have wings, and full anapterygials, which have both wings and fins. The only full anapterygials I know are flying fishes and sportsmen who combine hang-gliding with scuba diving. A few full anapterygials can be found in the fossil record, but they went extinct about as quickly as most hang-gliding divers.

cyanophil a person or organism that experiences an unnaturally strong attraction for the color green, such as those stuck in line at a stoplight, or blues, such as John Lee Hooker. A cyanophil with colorblindness may rush toward the color red as well, which may account for the behavior of most people operating automobiles in the city of Naples, Italy.

mystax the word animals use for “mustache”. Not to be confused with mystics, although they often have mustaches that appear to be animal in origin. Also not to be confused with myxo-, a prefix placed in front of a word to indicate that something is slimy. Myxomud, for example, refers to mud; other instances include myxolawyer and myxolitic, the name of a musical scale that some Medieval authorities deemed slimy, or vulgar. Myxo- and mystax are occasionally combined to form myxomystatic, describing animals with a runny nose, and occasionally myxomystatic mystics, which is technically incorrect, but you get the point.

onychium   what you find if you pop open a fingernail and check under the hood.

Elmer’s organs glands found in the snouts of moles or the snoots of very nosy people. Their function is unknown, but it probably has something to do with the sense of touch. If someone tells you that Elmer’s glue was originally derived from substances extracted (somehow) from Elmer’s organs, which would have been hard to do without suffering some wounds, it’s probably not true – but rather just an amazing coincidence.

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The Devil’s dictionary, Jan. 19, 2019

more entries in the Devil’s Dictionary: today including complementary air, complemental male, cribiform, competitive exclusion prenciple, lek, etc.

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2019 by Russ Hodge

complemental air an amount of air which can be drawn into the lungs beyond that normally needed for breathing, up to the point that they pop. Lungs, like balloons, come with a recommended maximum volume which may vary during activities like deep-sea diving and hiking trips to the Himalayas. Users exceed these values at their own risk.

complemental male a little dude that the females of some species carry around in case of an emergency. In the era of modern reproductive technology, complementary males have generally been replaced by vials of sperm.

cribiform a word used to describe the shape of any animal that can be used as a spaghetti strainer; cribiform organisms or colonies sometimes arise spontaneously at the apertures of shower drains.

competitive exclusion principle an evolutionary observation that two different species generally can’t occupy the same space without one becoming extinct, for example a married couple and their in-laws.

lek a courtship area that lies at some distance from nesting and feeding grounds; typically, a bar, or a motel room with short-term rates.

otolith “ear sand” – crusty calcium deposits which collect in the ear and are generally removed with the index finger on the same side of the body; using the other hand looks strange. This delivers external pathogens to the inner ear and was a cause of major epidemics until the invention of the Q tip. The mechanisms that produce otolith remain unclear. Hypotheses include: sand blown into the ear while lying on a beach, which may take decades to completely dribble out; particles dropped by birds or from airplane lavatories that land in the ear whenever you tilt your head; migratory belly button detritus; material ground up by the gears in the brain and exuded, if a person neglects to change the brain oil filter at regular intervals.

pterocarpus something or someone in possession of winged fruit, such as a flying banana.


single nucleotide polymorphism  a case in which a letter generally found at a specific location in the genetic code (or another text) has been replaced by another letter. This can change the phenotype of the organism. In the following text, for example:

“The barn is fallin’ apart”

Replacing the letter “a” with an “e” produces the following text:

“The bern is fellin’ epert”

and changes the speaker from an American to a Scotsman.


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Searching for Oslo: a non-hypothesis-driven approach

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


New updates to the Devil’s dictionary

more entries in the Devil’s Dictionary: -bios, faveolus, pleuston, sitology, somatic, snurps, supination, and tarsi.

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


all entries in the Devil’s Dictionary copyright 2019 by Russ Hodge

-bios a suffix attached to organisms indicating the ecosphere – the “living space” – in which they typically reside. Examples include:

halobios  the organisms residing inside a halo

limnobios  the organisms that live in limonade

limobios  anything organic that remains after cleaning a limo

diplobios  parasites occupying the bodies of diplomats

geobios  animals that live on land; interestingly, an anagram of the word is “boogies”, which means organisms that live in a gelatinous substance extracted from the nose and exposed to air.

faveolus  the crater left behind on a person’s face after the removal of a zit

pleuston  the aquatic version of a windbag

sitology  the scientific study of the interactions between a butt and a chair

somatic  everything that remains of a body after the soul has been extracted, whether through surgical, psychological, or divine methods

snurps  cynical, quip-like comments in a review, usually delivered in a sarcastic manner

supination  a posture adopted by a penitent when petitioning mercy on the part of a superior being, such as a religious authority or a group leader. In proper supination, the ventral side faces upward, toward the superior, exposing the soft parts, basically offering one’s intestines to the predator in the event he or she has a taste for such things.

tarsi  structures that keep a person’s eyelids from falling off.


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