Pretty much the most interesting blog on the Internet.— Prof. Steven Landsburg

Once you get past the title, and the subtitle, and the equations, and the foreign quotes, and the computer code, and the various hapax legomena, a solid 50% English content!—The Proprietor

Friday, October 23, 2015

Lacunæ of Knowledge

Sir Thomson

Sometimes people—even competent, intelligent people with responsible positions—just don’t know things one really would expect them to know. A recent incident reminded the author to be mercifully when judging those who exhibit such lacunae.

Sir William Thomson (1824-1907), later Baron Kelvin, was an eminent British physicist best known for his advances in thermodynamics (as well as the temperature scale named in his honor). Sir Joseph John Thomson (1856-1940), generally called by his initials J.J., was also an eminent British physicist and best known for the discovery of the electron.

The author has had opportunity to study their works and use their methods for more than three decades. Nonetheless, only a few days ago he took the opportunity of embarrassing himself by implying that the two contemporary British physicist Sir Thomsons were the same person. For that is what he had innocently thought for those three decades. Which they were not. They were not even related. Any onlooker who noticed this error could be forgiven for thinking that the author was a fool and a fraud.

One hopes that this is not the correct conclusion to be drawn from the author’s ignorance. Rather, it is perhaps an instance of the more common phenomenon described in the opening paragraph.

Yesterday, a New York Times political reporter tweeted:

Apparently this was intended to be telling of the partisan nature of the inquest. In fact, it was rather telling of the reporter’s ignorance of the fact that this is how C-SPAN has been handling most call-ins for some two decades—something one would expect a political reporter to be aware of after having watched C-SPAN at least once—and the usual New York Times eagerness to score political points for its partisan side. The predictable (and not entirely undeserved) scorn ensued.

Yet, as the preceding example teaches, perhaps one should not be quite so quick to jump to the conclusion that the man is a fool and a fraud.