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Judging from their groans and moans, I think sometimes that it’s hard for kids to grow up with two scientists as parents. Still, over the years our kids have come to accept (and ignore) that we seem to babble in some kind of strange code peppered with discussions of DNA, software, and lately something called “Next Gen.”

We’ll cook dinner and start reminiscing about PV=nRT.

Our youngest daughter will try to mix water and oil for brownies and one of us will contribute cheerfully: “Like dissolves like.”

Now that our oldest daughter is taking freshman chemistry, she gets to hear some new cliches. Every time she comes home and starts pushing electrons, my husband tells her that “Eight is great.”

And, of course, she already knows from her high-school biotech class, that when you’re running gels, you “Run to red.”

What are your favorite (or least favorite) science cliches?


  1. #1 vhurtig
    December 5, 2007

    Math, not science:

    In grad school the dreaded “this is a trivial proof left to the student/reader”

  2. #2 Anon
    December 5, 2007

    “It’s an empirical question.” (Said when a- it is an empirical question, b- you don’t know the answer, and c-unlike some faculty, you don’t feel like just making shit up.)

    “The rat is always right.” (If your experimental subjects are not behaving the way your theory predicted… your theory is the one that is wrong.)

  3. #3 deang
    December 5, 2007

    One of the first sentences a friend’s scientist father taught her when she was very young was, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Whenever issues involving ontogeny or phylogeny come up now, she invariably starts laughing.

  4. #4 Ex-drone
    December 5, 2007

    Teacher: In our extensive coverage of the periodic table this week, have we discussed the semimetallic element with the symbol “B”?

    Student: Yes. Boron, ma’am, boron.

  5. #5 amy
    December 5, 2007

    …or favorite science acronyms? like OIL RIG: Oxygen is Loss, reduction is Gain

  6. #6 Sandra Porter
    December 5, 2007

    Oh, I had forgotten the “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” line! That sure brings back memories!

    We need some physics contributions, too. I bet everyone can finish this line:

    “What goes up, must ……”

  7. #7 Sandra Porter
    December 5, 2007

    I used to use IPMAT to help students remember the stages of mitosis.


    sure it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s easy to remember.

  8. #8 Jason Coleman
    December 5, 2007

    Well, this is more from civil engineering courses, but one I heard a lot was “the solution to pollution is dilution.”

  9. #9 T. Bruce McNeely
    December 5, 2007

    Medicine has a tonne of ’em. Some examples:

    When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras (diagnosis).
    If you don’t put your finger in it, you’ll put your foot in it (rectal exam).
    Internists know everything and can do nothing, surgeons know nothing and can do everything, pathologists know everything and can do everything, but it’s too late!

  10. #10 Jeanne Chowning
    December 5, 2007

    Well, I’ve been thinking about this particular one recently, because I’m just getting over a fruit fly infestation. But I love, “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana!” 🙂

    One that always helped me is something a neuro prof shared about graffiti on a bathroom wall…”While I sit here, wondering what to think about, Sodium rushes in and Potassium rushes out.

  11. #11 mc
    December 6, 2007

    “Cells that fire together wire together.” (approximation of the Hebb postulate for neural plasticity)

  12. #12 csrster
    December 6, 2007

    One that always helped me keep straight. In radiative transfer theory “What you see comes from tau=1”.

  13. #13 wikinite
    December 6, 2007

    for physics..

    “assuming a perfectly spherical frictionless mass…”

  14. #14 Tom
    December 6, 2007

    More physics:

    Pumps don’t suck
    you can’t push a rope

    and there’s the punchline to that physics joke, “Assuming we have a spherical cow…”

  15. #15 Tom
    December 6, 2007

    … and the stuff you remember right after you hit “submit”

    The laws of Thermodynamics

    0. You must play the game.
    1. You can’t win.
    2 You can’t break even.
    3. You can’t get out of the game.

  16. #16 Richard Simons
    December 6, 2007

    From basic statistics: ‘You have a bag containing three red balls and five blue balls . . .’ and ‘What is the probability of there being two boys and one girl?’

    It would be nice to think of alternatives, but unfortunately both are very useful cliches.

    From evolution ‘Eohippus was the size of a fox terrier’ is less useful.

  17. #17 Dave Briggs
    December 6, 2007

    I sort of like, ” 186,000 miles per second! It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law!”
    You may even try to quote it to a Police Officer who is trying to give you a speeding ticket, but I am not sure how far that will get you! LOL!

    Dave Briggs :~)

  18. #18 RPM
    December 6, 2007

    ontology recapitulates phylogeny? I’m assuming you’re taking cliches that are factually inaccurate.

  19. #19 Sandra Porter
    December 6, 2007

    RPM: accurate or not, I’ve heard people repeat this over and over and over and over again.

  20. #20 MC112358
    December 6, 2007

    More math here–I love it when my professors try to say their favorite acronyms as words instead of sequences of letters, like WOLOG (without loss of generality), TFAE (the following are equivalent), and everyone’s favorite, every PID is an UFD! (principal ideal domain, unique factorization domain)

  21. #21 guppygeek
    December 6, 2007

    It is almost too demeaning to call it a cliche, but here goes…

    Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution

  22. #22 Cassidy
    December 7, 2007

    Xylem up, phloem down.
    FOIL in math

    This was a good one I learned in botany this year:
    CHOPKNS CaFe. Mighty Good, Not always Clean. CoMe in, CouZin MoB(y)

    To remember the essential elements in plants.

  23. #23 Christie Robertson
    December 8, 2007

    Ever since I learned this jingle as a tech, I’ve never been able to get it out of my head: “DNA makes RNA and RNA makes protein” – sung to the tune of “Mairzy doats and dozy doats”.

    Also, a pneumonic for the cranial nerves: “On old Olympus’ towering tops, a Finn and German vend some hops”. (Olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory, glossopharyngeal, vagus, accessory (sensory), hypoglossal)

  24. #24 Sandra Porter
    December 8, 2007

    Ooooh! you evil person! Now, I’m going to hear that song all day!

  25. #25 penny
    December 9, 2007

    paramino dimethyl benzaldehyde–sung to “the Irish Washerwoman”

    To err is human, to check is Science.

    If you cannot express it mathematically, you don’t really understand it.

    Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.

    To determine if someone is a chemist ask them to pronounce
    ” UNIONIZED”, to see if they are a mathematician, the same
    for “INVALID”

    Right hand rule, left hand fool.

    Fair, fat and forty–medicine

    If at first you don’t succeed, analyse your procedure.

    Add acid to water ( except when you shouldn’t)

    Never trust outliers, small data sets of uncertain distribution, or tails of distributions

    To build an oscillator, build an amplifier–it’s sure to
    oscillate;To build an amplifier, build an oscillator–it’s sure to fail to oscillate.

    How much math should a young theoretical physicist learn?
    Answer: More

    One theorem a year, you’r out on your ear;Two theorems a year, have no fear–tenure process

    Touch the red, you’ll be dead.–high voltage

    Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Scientists are from Missouri.

  26. #26 makita
    December 9, 2007

    Do as you oughta, add acid to water.

  27. #27 Luna_the_cat
    December 9, 2007

    Mine’s both more general, and visual:

  28. #28 yajeev
    December 9, 2007

    nearly all the processes of my day are seen in terms of what is the:

    “rate-limiting step”

    it’s the cashier in the check-out line.
    it’s the merge point of two highways on the drive to work.
    it’s my thinking of a third item for this list before I click “post” on this comment.

  29. #29 Sandra Porter
    December 9, 2007

    yajeev: we use that one all the time, too. At home, the rate-limiting step is usually our 13 yr old daughter.

  30. #30 Julia
    December 12, 2007

    I love pneumonics!

    This was the one I used for cranial nerves, though it appears to be out of order. Did some nomenclature change, or did I just learn them wrong?

    ‘Oh, oh, oh! To touch and feel slimy, grimy vomit! Ah!’
    (olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, s??, glossopharyngeal, vagus, accessory (sensory), hypoglossal)

    Then there are the classics for remembering taxonomic structure:

    ‘Kings play chess on fine green silk’
    (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species)

    I’m not entirely sure, but I believe that although ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ was disproved for embryology, other fields like sociology have adopted it and applied it to areas of their work. It’s still one of the best ‘cliches’ ever!

  31. #31 Vainamoinen
    September 14, 2010

    My favourite clichĂ©s are “We are doing science…” or “We have to promote collaboration”… After all, there is nothing more far away from the real world…

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