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Of Siphons and Serendipity

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Photo: www.csiro.au

Brittle Paper shares Dr. Hughes’ excitement at discovering an error in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The dictionary, claims Hughes, wrongly attributes the force behind a siphon to atmospheric pressure instead of to gravity. Dr. Hughes is a physics professor in an Australian university, an expert on siphons, a scientist of the first order but one who stands the chance of been remembered only for the grounds he broke in lexicography.

Thanks to Hughes, 99 years of darkness perpetuated by a book whose purity is supposed to be of biblical proportion has come to an end. But it is hard to miss the embarrassing silence with which the curtain of enlightenment falls on a century long error. Maybe things would have been different if, randomly speaking, siphons were invisible condoms that exploded when exposed to extreme gravity. Unluckily for the honest doctor, a siphon is merely a pipe that conveys liquid from one container to another. By gravity or by atmospheric pressure? As one commenter notes, setting the record straight is not going to improve the methods for siphoning petrol from a car.

Did Hughes really discover an error? Can a siphon occur in a vacuum? Are there other causes besides gravity and atmospheric pressure? Does the dictionary have to include all? Is the dictionary’s omission really a matter of emphasis? Is Hughes’ discovery spurious? A good number of the101 comments at the Sidney Morning Herald revolve around these questions. But the first comment set the ground for a far more important controversy, which is the triviality of the doctor’s discovery: “Yaaaaawn. And we are paying people like this to do such hugely IMPORTANT work like this?? Biiiig deal!” — by a commenter named Thrilled.

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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

2 Responses to “Of Siphons and Serendipity” Subscribe

  1. Boye August 4, 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    I always despair at people eager to condemn discovery or enlightenment as banal no matter how trivial the discovery may seem. We live in an era where many lament all the true great discoveries have been made but often a lot of what we deem true or assume as correct is not and waits for someone who sees behind the mask of the obvious.

  2. Ainehi August 4, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

    Your criticism is astute and makes me reflect on the disappearance of the inventor and the discover. I supposed we live in a world where the new has become banal.

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