National Science & Engineering Week
To celebrate National Science & Engineering Week 2011’s theme of Communication, the British Science Association have put together a rundown of ten of the most notable scientific miscommunications, mistakes, muddles and misunderstandings.
1.”In 1770, Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour ran aground on the coast of Queensland, Australia. While some of his men made repairs, Cook led an exploration party and met the aboriginal people. “One of the sailors pointed to the animals that hopped around with their young riding in pouches and asked an aborigine what they were called. The aborigine replied, ‘Kanguru.’ From then on Cook and his sailors referred to the animals by this word. It wasn’t until later that they learned that it meant ‘What did you say?’”
2.‘The famed physicist Theodore Maiman once recalled the New York press conference (in 1960) at which his development of the laser was announced: “When it was all over, one reporter came up to me and asked me about using the laser in developing weapons. I told him I didn’t think it very likely. He asked me if I would deny that the laser could be used that way, and I said no. The next day there were headlines in every newspaper around the country, screaming: ‘L.A. man discovers science-fiction death ray.’”’
3. ‘One day a nosy old widow was visited by a Fellow of the Royal Society, to whom she described the odd behaviour of “the poor crazy gentleman” living next door. “Every morning,” she explained, “when the sun shines so brightly that we are obliged to draw the window-blinds, he takes his seat in front of a tub of soap-suds and occupies himself for hours blowing bubbles through a common clay pipe and intently watches them until they burst.” Ushered to a window by his hostess, the man was surprised to learn the identity of the “poor crazy gentleman”: it was Sir Isaac Newton!
4. ‘William Randolph Hearst, always in search of sensational stories, once sent a telegram to a leading astronomer: “Is there life on Mars?” it read. “Please cable 1000 words.” The astronomer’s reply? “Nobody knows” – repeated 500 times.’
5. ‘In 1874, the French chemist Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran discovered a new element. Knowing that it would be improper to name an element after himself, Lecoq named it “gallium” after Gallia – the Latin name for what is now France. Gallus, however, also means “rooster” in Latin and le coq means “the rooster” in French. Lecoq, is seems, was wrily doing some crowing of his own.’
6. ‘Max Planck was made a full professor at the University of Berlin at an unusually early age. One day, having forgotten which room he had been assigned for a lecture, he stopped at the nearest university office to find out. “Please tell me,” he asked the elderly man in charge, “in which room does Professor Planck lecture today?” The old man patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t go there, young fellow,” he advised. “You are much too young to understand the lectures of our learned Professor Planck!”’
7. ‘Alexander Fleming’s famous accidental discovery of penicillin at St Mary’s Hospital in 1928 was occasioned by a speck of penicillium notatum mold (from a mycology lab one floor below) fortuitously contaminating an uncovered culture plate while he was away on vacation. Touring a modern research laboratory many years later, Fleming commented with interest upon the dust-free, air-conditioned environment in which its technicians labored. “What a pity you did not have a place like this to work in,” his guide remarked. “Who can tell what you might have discovered in such surroundings.” Fleming’s reply? “Not penicillin!”
8. ‘Albert Einstein was among the notable guests who attended the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights in 1931. While visiting Hollywood, the famed physicist attempted to explain his theories to a studio executive. “For instance, consider Betelgeuse,” he remarked at one point. “Betelgeuse, one of the greatest stars in the whole system, can be photographed merely by means of one ray of light…”
Sometime after Einstein left, the executive called his casting director. “Say,” he shouted. “I want you should go out and sign up this feller Betelgeuse, and I want you should sign him up quick. Einstein, who knows everything, says he’s one of the greatest stars in the business!”’Bottom of Form 9. ‘According to the traditional account, James Watt one day happened to observe a kettle boiling on the hearth. His aunt, finding him fiddling about (holding a spoon over its spout, removing and replacing it, gauging the pressure, etc) rebuked him for his idleness, suggesting that he go out and do something more productive. His “idleness” soon led to the development of his famous steam engine.’
10. ‘While passing through a hall in their home one day, the wife of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan happened to overhear the maid answering the telephone. “Yes, this is where Dr. Millikan lives,” the girl declared, “but he’s not the kind of doctor that does anybody any good.”’ All stories have been sourced from anecdotage.com