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Scientists ♥ Their Emojis, But It's Complicated

Feb 12, 2020
Originally published on February 18, 2020 10:20 am

Scientists can get very excited about what they study, and that means they can be pretty jazzed when what they study gets turned into one of the official emojis of the world and enters our shared visual language.

But sometimes that enthusiasm is tempered by more complex feelings, which is the case with some of the latest emojis that are about to hit our smartphones.

Consider the "rock" emoji.

Some discerning rock lovers thought this rock emoji was likely based on Serpentinite.
Emojipedia

"I was aware of the mountain emoji, which is quite helpful for geologists, and there's a hammer and a pick that I use quite a lot," says Stacy Phillips, a geologist at The Open University in the United Kingdom.

Then she happened to look through the list of emojis recently approved by the Unicode Consortium, which sets the world standard for text and emojis on computers and mobile devices. She saw that a "rock" had made the cut, and thought to herself, "Yes!"

But then she thought, "Wait, what type of rock is that?"

To her, the rock icon in Emojipedia looked like a cabbage. "It was just kind of dark green, a little wrinkly, a little bumpy," she says, "which I guess is what a rock looks like to most people."

Geologists have been pondering this emoji and discussing it on Twitter. "One of the most popular suggestions that I got was that it was a rock called serpentinite," says Phillips.

Or, maybe it's a rock covered in green moss or lichen. It doesn't really matter, because the rock will look different on every device or platform. Technology companies like Apple and Google create their own rendering of each emoji character approved by the consortium.

Geologists aren't the only scientists to get an important new emoji. The list of soon-to-be-released emojis also includes a fly.

The fruit fly has long been a mainstay of genetics research and is one of the most studied creatures on the planet.

"I'm happy that there's a fly, now, and now I have to change my Twitter bio to reflect that," says Richard Meisel, a biologist at the University of Houston, whose lab uses fruit flies and whose Twitter bio says he is "waiting for a fly emoji."

He recalls that, a couple years ago, he went searching for a fly emoji. The only choices that popped up were a mosquito or a butterfly. It made him a little sad.

"You look at all the other insects or animals that are available with emojis and you see that there are emojis for them and not for yours," says Meisel. "Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, it's a trivial emotional blow, but there's still an emotional component to it."

Scientists on Twitter commented that this emoji looked too much like the much-hated house fly rather than the numerous other "lovely" flies they study.
Emojipedia

Still, some say the long-awaited fly emoji is a disappointment.

Mark Peifer, a biologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is currently the president of a research association called the Fly Board. He surveyed fruit fly researchers and found that more than half of them thought the initial rendering of a fly emoji wasn't cute enough.

After all, he says, fruit flies are small and adorable. The fly emoji he's seen looked to him like a housefly, which he thinks are big and ugly, a pest associated with garbage and filth.

Anything that looks like that should be called the "housefly" emoji, so as not to "tarnish the reputation of tens of thousands of other flies with the bad associations people have with houseflies and fly swatters and so on," he says.

"I mean, really? It's just not right," says Peifer. "We don't want our lovely Drosophila associated with those nasty houseflies."

When he was looking at the other insect emojis, to see how the fly would fit in, he noted scientific inaccuracies. "Honeybees have four wings," Peifer points out, but some honeybee emojis appear to have only two.

In the past, biologically-implausible emojis have been fixed.

A few years ago, for example, Apple created a squid emoji that had a key part of its anatomy--the siphon used for jet propulsion--in the wrong place, sitting between its eyes and looking disturbingly like a nose.

"I saw the problem immediately, but I was honestly just so thrilled to bits to have a squid emoji at all that I didn't complain," says Sarah McAnulty, a squid biologist at the University of Connecticut.

This updated version of Apple's squid emoji no longer has the misplaced siphon it originally had.
Apple

The Monterey Bay Aquarium tweeted about the error, however, and the issue got picked up by the press. In the next rollout of emojis, the trouble was fixed.

"The squid's siphon was no longer visible on the top of the squid," says McAnulty. "So, that's a win for us!"

It was a rare win for invertebrates, given that emojis are heavily biased towards mammals.

Kyle David, a biologist at Auburn University, says he checks every batch of new emojis "to see, you know, are we getting any cool new marine critters or are we just getting our fourth bear, or whatever."

Big groups from the tree of life are missing, he says, writing on Twitter that "Mammal emojis are so over-represented we're now doing extinct species and color morphs before a single representative from six of the ten largest animal phyla."

The currently available emojis include no creatures from the large groups of species that include jellyfish, corals, starfish, and sea urchins, he says. The entire fungi kingdom is represented by one mushroom emoji.

And then there is the emoji called "microbe," the only available emoji to represent all microbes—like archaea, bacteria, and viruses—unless someone wants to resort to "petri dish."

The new microbe emoji doesn't appease virologists' desire for their own emoji. It "just doesn't look like any of the viruses that any of us work on," says Kristen Bernard, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Emojipedia

Kristen Bernard, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, says people in her field had been hoping for a virus emoji.

"I will say we were all a little bit disappointed," she recalls, noting that the microbe emoji "just doesn't look like any of the viruses that any of us work on."

If she was designing a virus emoji, she'd give it an icosahedral structure, which has twenty triangular sides. "Most virologists," she explains, "if we saw an icosahedral-type shape, we would go, 'Ah, it's a virus!'"

She, or anyone else, could actually propose an emoji like that, because the Unicode Consortium takes suggestions from the public.

Jessica Morrison, a product manager at Chemical & Engineering News, was part of a group that pitched a whole set of science emojis back in 2016. A bunch of them were accepted, such as DNA, a test tube, and a lab coat.

DNA, with its famous double helix, was approved in 2016 along with a several other science-oriented emojis.
Emojipedia

One of their proposals was the rock emoji. It was not accepted back then, which shows how this process can take time. "I was a geologist in undergrad, that's why I wanted a rock," says Morrison, who has called the emojis she worked on her "greatest contribution to science."

"If there's any emoji you want, propose it. That's all you have to do," says Morrison.

That same message is echoed by Melissa Thermidor, who works for NHS Blood and Transplant, which oversees blood and organ donations in the United Kingdom. When she was trying to encourage blood donation, she noticed that the only available blood-related emoji was a syringe, which looked a bit scary.

"I googled 'how does an emoji become an emoji?' and started going down this rabbit hole," says Thermidor, who worked to win approval for a blood drop emoji, as well as the band-aid and stethoscope emojis.

Worm enthusiasts are excited they'll soon have their own emoji.
Emojipedia

Most recently her proposals for an anatomical heart and lungs were accepted. She also successfully pitched the new worm emoji.

"My three-year-old absolutely loves wiggly worms," she says, "it was just, I guess, a nice little homage to her, because she loves worms, and I thought, why not?"

That means all worm researchers will no longer have to resort to the bug; they'll soon have their own worm emoji, and whatever complex feelings come along with it.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now a story about emojis - you know, those tiny pictures you can add to your text or tweets. And it turns out they inspire a lot of complicated emotions in scientists. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that some new emojis being released later this year have scientists feeling both thrilled and dismayed.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Stacy Phillips works at the Open University in the United Kingdom. She's a geologist, and she likes to use emojis.

STACY PHILLIPS: I was aware of the mountain emoji, which is quite helpful for geologists. And there's a hammer and a pick that I use quite a lot.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Recently she took a look at the list of new emojis being rolled out this year by the group that controls such things, the Unicode Consortium. On the list for the first time ever was something geologists had longed for - a rock.

PHILLIPS: Kind of like, yes. But then I was, like, but wait. What type of rock is that?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: To her, it looked like a cabbage.

PHILLIPS: It was just kind of dark green, a little wrinkly, a little bumpy, which I guess is what a rock looks like to most people.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She and other geologists have been pondering this.

PHILLIPS: One of the most popular suggestions that I got was it was a rock called serpentinite.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Or maybe it's a rock covered in moss. Anyway, the rock will look different on every device or platform. Companies create their own renderings of each emoji, but at least geologists will finally have a symbol for the iconic object of their passion. The list of soon-to-be-released emojis also includes a fly, and that is good news for someone whose Twitter profile says he is, quote, "waiting for a fly emoji." Richard Meisel is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Houston. His lab uses fruit flies, one of the most studied species on the planet. A couple years ago, he went looking for a fly emoji.

RICHARD MEISEL: It's like, when you search fly, I think a mosquito would pop up and a butterfly would pop up.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: How does that make you feel?

MEISEL: Sad.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says, in the grand scheme of things, the emotional blow was trivial but nonetheless real.

MEISEL: I'm happy that there's a fly now, and now I have to change my Twitter bio to reflect that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But in one informal poll, a lot of fly researchers said it looks like the new fly emoji won't be cute enough. Mark Peifer is a biologist at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He says the fly emojis he's seen look like big ugly house flies, not science's treasured fruit flies.

MARK PEIFER: We don't want our lovely drosophila associated with those nasty houseflies. It's just not right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Experts have taken issue with emojis before. Sometimes the images are scientifically inaccurate, like a squid emoji released a few years ago. A key part of its anatomy, the siphon used for jet propulsion, was in the wrong place, sitting between its eyes and looking disturbingly like a nose.

SARAH MCANULTY: And I saw the problem immediately, but I was honestly just so thrilled to bits to have a squid emoji at all that I didn't complain.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sarah McAnulty is a squid biologist at the University of Connecticut. She says the Monterey Bay Aquarium tweeted about this. It got picked up by the press. In the next rollout of emojis, it was fixed.

MCANULTY: The squid's siphon was no longer visible on the top of the squid, so that's a win for us.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A rare win for invertebrates, given that emojis are heavily biased towards mammals. Kyle David is a biologist at Auburn University who always checks the list of new emojis.

KYLE DAVID: To see, you know, are we getting any cool new marine critters or are we just getting, you know, our fourth bear or whatever?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says big groups from the tree of life are missing.

DAVID: Cnidaria is like a very large group. That's your jellyfish and your corals that I don't think we have anything for. Echinoderms, which are one of our closest invertebrate relative groups. That's your starfish and your sea urchins.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The entire kingdom of fungi is represented by one mushroom emoji. And then there is the emoji called microbe. It's the only option to represent all microbes - archaea, bacteria, viruses - unless you want to go with a petri dish. Kristen Bernard is a virologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She says people in her field had been waiting for a virus emoji.

KRISTEN BERNARD: I will say that we were all a little bit disappointed.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The microbe emoji has been described as a green splat. Bernard says virologists use it, but that doesn't mean they like it.

BERNARD: It just doesn't really look like any of the viruses any of us work on.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She wishes that there was, oh, an icosahedral one. Lots of viruses have this many sided structure.

BERNARD: Most virologists, if we saw an icosahedral-type shape, we would go, oh, it's a virus.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She could propose an emoji like that. The Unicode Consortium takes suggestions from the public. Melissa Thermidor works for the group that oversees blood and organ donations in the United Kingdom. Her proposal for an anatomical heart emoji just got approved, as did her emoji for lungs. Also, a worm emoji - she pushed for that one because her 3-year-old daughter is always looking for wiggly worms.

MELISSA THERMIDOR: It was just, I guess, a nice little homage to her because she loves worms and I thought, well, why not?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That means all worm researchers will soon have an emoji of their own and whatever complex feelings come with it. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.