Monday, 29 February 2016

A popular science blooper that stands on the shoulders of giants

Every book I've ever read contains errors. Mine certainly do. But recently I came across a statement in a popular science book that was so outrageously incorrect that I read it three times, because I was sure I was missing something. I wasn't. Here it is, in all its glory:

Let’s be clear. This was not some self-published diatribe by an individual who thinks that Einstein was a fraud and Tesla was an alien. It was written by a scientist (admittedly from the biological sciences) with considerable experience of science communication. And it was produced by a significant mainstream publisher with all the panoply of editing and proof reading processes that occur before reaching this final copy.

If you are of an arts-oriented bent, you might be wondering what the fuss is about. It’s as if someone wrote that Botticelli painted Guernica, that Bach wrote The Rite of Spring and that Shakespeare wrote War and Peace, all rolled into one. It’s not for nothing the C. P. Snow used the Second Law of Thermodynamics as his prime example of the relative ignorance of the arts world of science in his famous Two Cultures lecture at the end of the 1950s:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
In case you are in any doubt, Newton did indeed have a second law - of motion, which in its modern form is the equivalent of saying that force is equal to mass times acceleration. It had nothing to do with thermodynamics, which, as the name, suggests began as a study of the way that heat moves from place to place, a solidly 19th/20th century science that started as a way of improving steam engines and ended up being one of the central aspects of our understanding of physics. The names that should be attached to it are the likes of Sadi Carnot and Rudolf Clausius, who respectively laid the groundwork and effectively first expressed the law, and Ludwig Boltzmann, whose statistical version made it far, far more than had first been intended.

I’m not going to name the author, book, or publisher responsible for the blooper. As I mentioned at the start, every book I’ve ever read has mistakes in it. But they are typically typos or silly memory errors. This (which is repeated later) is so fundamental that the mind truly boggles. I read it. I re-read it. I tried to find some way it could be ironic or some such clever thing.

But I couldn’t.

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