Fresh from the Quarantine: An image of the Coronavirus

It’s been a long time since an update – I know! Sorry! But I’ve been busy and the drought is now officially at an end.

I’ve just finished a new painting of the coronavirus interacting with a human cell…

I’m offering it freely to anyone who would like for any non-profit publication or other use – just cite the following:

Artwork by Russ Hodge,

I’ve done a lot of painting during the quarantine and will be posting it soon at my on-line studio:



In case you haven’t seen it…

In case you haven’t visited the site in a while…

I am posting my artwork now on my new “studio” blog. If you like the non-scientific artwork, check in there from time to time. A couple of the newest pieces are below.

And for those of you in the Berlin area, I’m giving a concert and having an exhibition of my paintings in Neukölln in mid-March… If you’re interested in attending the concert, space is limited, so drop me a line and I’ll reserve you a seat.

Tell your friends!

Both events are hosted by the Wunderkammer; check out the rest of their program at the Wunderkammer website.

New blog for artwork

Dear friends,

I’ve just started a second site – – where I’ll be publishing my non-scientific paintings from now on. If you’re interested, visit the site. It’s still not complete, but there are already over 200 works in the galleries, most of which are for sale as originals or reproductions. I’ll be adding the titles and names to the portraits over the next few days.

The Devil’s dictionary: Now available in printed form!

Want that perfect gift for your scientist friend/spouse/group leader/ collaborator/competitor…? The complete Devil’s Dictionary is now available as a bound book… 80 pages of craziness…

Contact me by email or through the blog if you’re interested:

More new entries in the Devil’s Dictionary

today’s entries: habitat patch, isolating mechanism, loafing platform, Mammalia

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


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

habitat patch  the area where an organism belongs, rather than the place it has wandered off to, often indicated by some sort of “patch” (insignia, merit badge, bar code) worn on the fur, skin, or some other surface area. This explains the note your mother pinned to your shirt the first day of school, providing an address and phone number in case you got lost. Habitat patches also explain why a lot of children end up in the Pumpkin Patch on Halloween and a great number of dolls land in the Cabbage Patch.

isolating mechanism  some biological feature, behavior or device used to keep animals from mating with each other under circumstances that are somehow inappropriate. The barriers may be biological, behavioral, ecological, social or any combination thereof: cases of mating between mice and whales are very rare in the literature, for example, not only because dates are hard to arrange, but socially discouraged, not to mention the physiological difficulties. Humans have used isolating mechanisms as well: placing a sword in the middle of a bed shared by an unmarried couple, as described in the Arabian Nights and a tale by the Grimm brothers. Another example is the practice of “bundling”, in which courting couples were allowed to sleep in the same bed provided they were sewn into separate sacks ahead of time. In a poem from colonial America, the practice is described this way:

A bundling couple went to bed
With all their clothese from foot to head;
That the defense might seem complete
Each one was wrapped in a sheet
But oh, this bundling’s such a witch
The man of her did catch the itch,
And so provoked was the wretch
That she of his a bastard catch’d.

From the Atlas Obscura

loafing platform  a sort of raft or structure that some birds build on the surface of water to stash their kids, to keep them from getting into trouble or floating away or being eaten by sharks. Loafing platforms are the waterfowl equivalent of couches or playpens equipped with DVD players.

Mammalia: “Mammalia is a group of animals known as the vertebrates (have backbones) and belong to the class Mammalia.” From: and winner of the “Circular Definition of the Month” prize.

The Devil’s dictionary is finally back!!!

After a very long hiatus, the Devil’s Dictionary is back and growing again!!!

today’s entries: kleptoparasitism, lores, migratory overshooting, and mirror-image disorientation

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


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

kleptoparasitism  a phenomenon in which one organism attaches itself to the body of another to steal its food rather than going to all the trouble of hunting or shopping on its own. Psychologists believe that many cases of kleptomania may actually be caused by small kleptoparasites hiding on a person’s body, although this has yet to be used successfully as a defense in a criminal case. The term is used metaphorically to refer to in-laws or other relatives who show up for a visit and refuse to leave.

lores  a region of the face between the eyes and bill of a bird, or between the eyes and mouth of other animals. This area is sometimes occupied by a nose. Lore is also used to refer to the back part of the cheeks of insects. If you are surprised to discover that insects have cheeks, and that they are subdivided into functionally distinct regions, well, chalk it up to just another failure of today’s educational system.

Surprising indeed is what happens when one enters the terms “lore cheek insect” into the Pubmed search engine. This delivers an astounding article on the topic “Spider lick,” published in 1961 by the British Journal of Ophthalmology. I highly recommend this classic of scientific research, which begins thus:

“In certain parts of the world and at certain seasons, a number of patients may be seen who show lesions of a character which at once strike one as being unusual and not described in textbooks of ophthalmology, nor in standard student textbooks of medicine, dermatology or tropical medicine. One has only to see a few cases to realize that here are lesions so characteristic as to constitute a syndrome. The lesions may be seen on any part of the exposed skin, but are especially common on the eyelids and contiguous skin of the face…”

The introduction goes on like this for a while and then concludes: “The trivial nature of the condition is probably the reason for the omission of an adequate description in most textbooks, and for the fact that its aetiology is not generally known. In the north-east region of India, where the condition is comparatively common, it is called ‘spider lick’, but it is not due to a spider nor caused by a lick.”

migratory overshooting  at the end of a trip, failing to stop when the GPS announces that you have arrived at your destination. This often results in driving through the back wall of your garage.

mirror-image misorientation  a term used to describe the behavior of birds or other species that migrate in a direction opposite to the normal route. This occurs in animals that get “left” and “right” mixed up, or that have trouble following directions, or are just contrary by nature. The term is also used to refer to humans if they move to a country where people drive on the wrong side of the road, or who leave Texas to spend the winter in Missouri, rather than becoming Winter Texans, as is the natural order of things. Most injuries that occur while shaving are caused by mirror-image misorientation. As well as those that happen while backing up a trailer attached to a car.

New animals for the MDC’s conference on unusual model organisms

The MDC is currently hosting a conference on unusual model organisms used in research; a while ago they asked me to do drawings of the animals that would be covered. Here are some of the pieces I did…

These images are copyright 2019 by Russ Hodge.


Some of the rest can be seen on the poster...












This is about a third of the complete set… more to come!

Ghosts of omission

What a thing IS encodes what it ISN’T

Note: This piece follows up on my other articles on “ghosts” – an analysis of diverse factors which disrupt science communication. To read more, see:

An overview of the model: “Ghosts, models and meaning in science”

The main article

A recent talk on the topic given at Jackson laboratories

Ghosts in images

More on ghosts in images

“Ghosts of omission” are a type I describe in the talk recently given at the Jackson Laboratory in Maine (see the link above). I discovered this type during a retreat with the Niendorf group from the MDC. We were doing an exercise on the difference between verbal descriptions of things and images. Each member of the group had to go into the kitchen, choose an object, then come back and describe it in purely physical, spatial terms, without naming it or stating its function. The listeners had to draw it.

One of the postdocs chose to describe this:

About half of the participants drew something that clearly corresponded to this object. But interestingly, the other half of the group drew one of these:


There are times when the “resolution” of language usually doesn’t suffice to disambiguate two things that are similar. Think of verbal descriptions of faces, for example, which could usually apply to lots of different individuals – it’s hard for most people to describe them well enough for a police artist, even when a face is being drawn right in front of them.

In this case that isn’t really the problem. It would be straightforward to describe the “egg whisk” well enough to distinguish it from the beaters of a mixer. What happened, though, is that the person giving the description just didn’t think about beaters at the time.

This means that confusion or ambiguity can arise because when describing something, the speaker or writer doesn’t know about – or simply doesn’t think about – another thing that it might be confused with. In other words, the way we think of a thing encodes not only what it is– what we’d probably call defining features – but those which distinguishit from other things that resemble it along multiple dimensions.

This concept surely has profound implications for fields like information and set theory, and across the spectrum of linguistics. It’s equally crucial in the types of concepts and models created by biologists. I’ll just cite two examples here: noncoding RNAs and immune cells.

The completion of the human genome and the rapid development of sequencing technologies revealed that our DNA encodes not only messenger RNAs bearing the recipes for proteins, but a wide range of other types of RNAs. Scientists are still exploring the functions of these molecules. New types – with different functions – are being discovered all the time. Initially scientists grouped them into classes generally based on the length of the molecules – into categories such as microRNAs, or long noncodingRNAs – and generally expected that these sizes would be associated with specific functions. The field has now exploded with the characterization of dozens of types, whose functions do not necessarily correlate cleanly with an RNA’s length. In principle, the discovery of each new type is like the discovery of a new kitchen instrument which might shift the defining and distinguishing features of existing utensils.

But it’s not always the case that the discovery of a new element in a system causes scientists to revisit and revise existing classifications. The same is true of the immune system, where new types of cells continue to be discovered. Researchers with a profound understanding of this incredibly complex system know that new types can force a revision of the roles and functions of the players already known. This can, however, take a while to seep into the broader awareness of the community. And there’s no guarantee that the patterns encoded in old ways of thinking of a type of RNA, or an immune cell, will be completely stripped from the old concepts.

This problem is inherent to biology because new instruments – or upping the resolution of an old method – continually expose new features and elements of systems. At first, these components are almost always seen from the perspective of models that have done without them. Eventually the cognitive shifts spread and are better integrated. But we need to be aware that our models encode old ghosts that are never completely broken down and reconfigured.

To close I’d like to show another way in which “ghosts of omission” exert an extremely powerful effect on our thinking. In an earlier version of the “Jackson talk” I used to include an example of a text (slightly edited) by a famous humorist. We read the text and it usually got a laugh:

Tom and saw Tom’s older brother George kissing his girlfriend on a couch. Tom and I looked at each other with big grins. If faces had been meant to kiss each other, they would not have been given noses.

Suddenly the scene turned bizarre because we saw that the girl had her tongue in George’s mouth and George’s tongue was misplaced, too.

What could that girl’s tongue possibly be doing in George’s mouth? Tom and I felt sick. After about a minute of observation, we went out into the backyard.

“That’s it!” I told Tom. “I’m really disgusted with girls now. I’m never gonna hit another one. Or even hit one with a jelly bean… Let’s make a pact. The first girl who ever puts her tongue in our mouth, we give it right back to her.”

At that point I identified the author: Bill Cosby.

If you know anything of Cosby’s subsequent legal troubles, and go back and read the text, what was simply amusing now becomes somewhat “creepy”. Knowing a single fact changes the way we process language and envision the roles of the characters. I can’t define creepiness in cognitive terms… But the change that occurs between the two readings of the text is the result of ghosts of omission. It’s another example of the profound effects of the “dark matter” of ghosts.

More “ghosts” in images

In my talk at the Jackson laboratories and my other work on “ghosts” in science communication (1)(2)(3), I refer to the way hidden structures and patterns in our thinking influence not only how we understand meaning, but basic aspects of perception. Here are a couple of new examples, developed for the talk and then something I found in the news this morning.

The first illustrates how we scan, process and interpret grey-scale images. I think generally if we see a black and white image, we’ve been trained to recognize structures and patterns based on everyday things we encounter. I’m sitting on a sofa with greyish/green cushions, and I recognize significant structures such as the cracks between them (very dark lines) and a floral pattern on the fabric, and others that I dismiss – shadows just because the way the light is falling:

When I look at an MRI scan, I also see patterns:

and my brain does something similar… In essence, my brain is simplifying the structure, highlighting some differences and reducing others. It’s filtering the image down to something like this:

BUT the gradations of grey-scale on a sofa don’t mean the same thing as in an MRI scan of the brain. The original image actually contains far more gradations of grey than I can probably perceive…

But using Photoshop or another image processing program you can get the computer to mark them, and use false coloring to exaggerate the differences. Doing that to the original image produces this:

It’s not necessarily true that this rendering contains more functional information than the simpler one, but I’d bet it does. How meaningful are these new substructures? That’s for the experts to decide, but you have to notice them in the first place to ask the question.

The “ghosts” in this process are a level of visual processing that our brains often carry out below the surface, recognizing some shades of grey as the “same” and clustering them, ignoring others and filtering them out. There’s simply no guarantee that the way this is happening – trained by all kinds of situations in which we recognize patterns in images – will pick up the critical differences in an MRI image of the brain.

This morning I found a similar image in an article by the NY Post and used it to do the same thing. The piece refers to a study comparing the brains of a “normal, healthy” three-year-old and another who had suffered extreme emotional abuse. I’m not making any claims about the original study here, or the controls and so on, not having read it yet. Nor am I sure that the image they posted represents the original data, with the full resolution and color scale. But still, the difference is remarkable.

Here’s the image posted on the site:


And here’s my colorized version:


There’s certainly more to see. What does it mean? Thoughts are welcome.