Observing Mars through his telescope in 1877, Milanese astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw oceans and canali, meaning channels. The latter was mistranslated into English as canals, implying Martian-made waterways, and an amateur astronomer named Percival Lowell soon began publishing books pointing to these as evidence of life on Mars. By 1910 photographic technology had advanced sufficiently to debunk his extrapolated theories.
“Your minds are full of all kinds of treacherous plans,” wrote Indian activist Tarabai Shinde, addressing men in an 1882 pamphlet. One plan: “Let’s bluff this moneylender and pocket a thousand rupees from him.” Another: “That woman Y, what a coquette she really is! What airs she gives herself! Must corner her one of these days and see whether some affair with her can be managed.” Such “insidious perfidies,” she concluded, “never enter a woman’s mind.”
In 1986 a Greek professor encountered a previously unknown word while deciphering a fifth-century lexicon olisbokollix, meaning “loaf-of-bread dildo.” Later discovery of vase paintings showing women carrying baskets of phallus-shaped loaves confirmed the word had been understood correctly.
“His method was inefficient in the extreme,” scoffed Nikola Tesla in 1931 in a New York Times obituary for his former employer and longtime scientific competitor, Thomas Edison. “In view of this, the truly prodigious amount of his actual accomplishments is little short of miracle.”
The third-century Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius stated that one of the favorite sayings of Antisthenes was, “The fellowship of brothers of one mind was stronger than any fortified city.” Laërtius also recalled an anecdote about Socrates—when asked by a young man if he should marry or not, the philosopher replied, “Whichever you do, you will regret it.”
Forty-five years ago, cosmologist Brandon Carter postulated that no observer should expect to find that he or she had come into existence exceptionally early in the history of his or her species. “Suppose you know that your name is in a lottery urn,” writes philosopher John Leslie, “but not how many other names the urn contains. You estimate, however, that there’s a half chance it contains a thousand names, and a half chance of its containing only ten. Your name then appears among the first three drawn from the urn.
The bark of Cinchona trees (from which quinine is obtained) was first described as a remedy for malaria by Jesuit missionaries in Peru. Protestant hostility toward Jesuits, however, led to a distrust of “Peruvian bark” in England. An apothecary’s apprentice named Robert Talbor warned patients to “beware of all palliative cures and especially that known by the name of Jesuits’ powder,” instead offering his own secret remedy. His treatment was highly effective, earning him a fortune.
In 1864, responding to his friend Victor Hugo’s invitation to visit Guernsey, where the writer was living in exile, the French painter Gustave Courbet wrote, “In your sympathetic retreat I will contemplate the spectacle of your sea. The viewpoints of our mountains also offer us the limitless spectacle of immensity. The unfillable void has a calming effect. I confess, poet, I love terra firma and the orchestration of the countless herds that inhabit our mountains. The sea! The sea with its charms saddens me.
“Utter damned rot!” is what William Berryman Scott, a former president of the American Philosophical Society, said in response to Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, first proposed in 1912. “Wegener is not seeking the truth,” said a doubtful geologist, “he is advocating a cause and is blind to every argument and fact that tells against it.”
Statistician Stephen Stigler wrote in 1980, “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” He identified this as a basic law of eponymy, admitted he was an “outsider to the sociology of science” acting in “flagrant violation of the institutional norms of humility,” and named the law after himself.
A 2018 study of sediment cores taken from the bed of Walden Pond found signs of “cultural eutrophication”: human urine released into the pond since it became a popular swimming spot in the 1920s has altered the water chemistry and could turn the “beautiful clear lake into a slimy green stew.” The study was reported in the Boston Globe with the headline “Please Stop Peeing in Walden Pond, Researchers Beg.”