Future Tense

The New Lobster and DNA Emojis Are Now Scientifically Accurate. Well Done, Nerds!

A lobster emoji with six legs and a lobster emoji with eight legs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Emojipedia.

In a victory for scientists and lobster fans everywhere (but especially in Maine), errors in the new DNA and lobster emojis have been corrected in response to outcry on social media.

The group responsible for both the errors and the corrections is Emojipedia, which designed them on behalf of the Unicode Consortium. Originally founded to ensure that symbols are standardized and readable across all devices, the Consortium has in recent years ascended to a much higher (or at least higher-profile) cause: deciding which emojis make it to our keyboards. For better or for worse, the symbols have become integrated into our daily lives to the point where they can even underscore cultural differences—French speakers reportedly “use four times as many heart emojis” as other languages, and Americans lead the world in deploying the pizza pictograph. As emojis have taken off, institutions and amateur enthusiasts alike have started lobbying for their own iconography to enter the conversation.

When science lovers decided to make the case for a new suite of emojis, they won the backing of General Electric (which runs its own fully fledged emoji-based science outreach campaign) and the American Chemical Society. Thanks to the team’s efforts, a double helix, a lab coat, a microbe, a test tube, an abacus, and a petri dish will soon be among the 2,823 emojis at our disposal.

The deeply charming original proposal—which also suggested, among others that didn’t make the cut, a neuron, a seismogram, and a Fibonacci series—unsurprisingly got the science right.
But something happened on the way to official approval: In the Unicode Consortium’s announcement, the double helix was twisted the wrong way. Right-handed DNA is the iconic structure that forms the “blueprint for life”; left-handed DNA, like that seen in Emojipedia’s design, does exist, but it’s rare, and its function is still unclear. Science Twitter was not pleased:

For arthropodologists, the anatomical inaccuracy of the lobster emoji—two legs shy of the 10 the crustaceans actually possess—was another blow. It, too, was the product of an orchestrated campaign, which started with the founder of the restaurant chain Luke’s Lobster and culminated in an endorsement from Maine’s Sen. Angus King (who thanked the Consortium when he learned it had been accepted but didn’t seem to pick up on the appendage shortage that drew the ire of his constituents).

To its credit, Emojipedia responded quickly to both reports of inaccuracy, tacking on the necessary lobster legs and re-twisting its double helix in the right direction before they went to press. And those who are disappointed by the rejection of the Erlenmeyer flask might be heartened to know that scientists have taken the creation of more niche emojis into their own hands: The American Chemical Society’s Chemoji app includes the periodic table and an array of smileys sporting safety goggles.

If you want a wider audience, you don’t need the support of a senator or a multinational conglomerate to get an emoji off the ground (though the publicity probably doesn’t hurt). Ideas for next year—scientific or otherwise—can be submitted by anyone through the end of March.