Even Marilyn can be wrong.

In April of 1998 I finally caught Marilyn Vos Savant ("Ask Marilyn", Parade magazine) in a howler of an error  in explaining the origin of the Fahrenheit temperature scale.  The Fahrenheit scale of  1714  is only a little older than the Centigrade or Celsius  scale of 1742, which has since become nearly universal except in Britain and the United States.  She said that Fahrenheit measured the freezing point and boiling points of water and decided to call the first 32  and the latter 212. I sent in an objection based on logic (who would choose such unlikely numbers) and knowledge (I had learned years ago that the anchor of the scale was zero degrees, not 32.).

I then sent what I remembered of an ETS experimental test item that I had learned about at the Harvard Graduate School of Education from one of my master teachers during the Harvard-Newton Summer School in 1964. It goes as follows:

Your high school science class has been privileged to visit a similar class on a terrestrial-type planet in a nearby system. Of the following observations you made, which one is out of place in this alien environment?
  (a) There is a periodic table of the elements chart on the wall.
(b) Many laboratory instruments are made of or decorated with real  gold.
(c) A mineral collection includes uncut diamonds the size of goose eggs.
(d) The thermometer on the wall indicates 70 degrees.
In my science group at Harvard, the knee jerk reaction was that the gold or the diamonds were out of place. Few people got past that to realize that the Fahrenheit scale contains some very unlikely values for the physical constants or freezing and boiling. If the thermometer had read 20 degrees, it would have been logical. The correct answer was (d).

The "distracters" are all possible and explainable. The periodicity of the elements would be recognized anywhere in the universe. Gold and diamonds could be common in an alien geology. A temperature of 20 would not have been out of place because it would be based on physical constants of  freezing and boiling water,  but 70 degrees is so seemingly  irrational as to be unlikely to be used on Earth, let alone on an alien planet!

This is because Fahrenheit based his scale on the human body temperature for 100 and the lowest temperature one could create in a laboratory at the time.  Ice and salt in an insulated container produced the low temperature that set the zero point and allowed the making of ice cream since Roman times.  Fahrenheit did not say "let's make freezing 32 degrees". That just happened because of his other choices of physical constants.

Marilyn (or her staff) published a half-hearted correction a couple of months later, accepting the 0 degree constant but expressing doubt about the 100 degrees. After all, everybody knows that body temperature is 98.6 degrees. But body temperature was re-defined a few years later to coincide with the Celsius value of 37 degrees.

Botanists aren't necessarily good etymologists.

A botanist at a major botanical garden on HGTV explained why the genus of the apple family is named Malus. He said that it was because the apple was the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, hence bad, hence the Latin word for bad, malus. Bad etymology.  Bad botanical pronunciation strikes again.  The Latin word for 'bad' is malus with a short a, sounds like malice. The genus is properly pronounced malus  with a long a, sounds like mail-us).

In order for this etymology to be correct the early Latin tongue would have to have been developed by an Italic tribe familiar with the Old Testament or the Torah, as it would have been called. But the fall of man and original sin were not an ancient Italic myth.  Rome only became aware of the Torah with their occupation of Palestine in the latter days of the republic, when they accepted Herod the Great as their client.  Even if the genus meant bad, one would have to seek a reason for it other than the story of Adam and Eve.  This is religious chauvinism at its worst.

The truth is far simpler. Malus with a long a was the Greek word for apples and all pome fruits. It is linguistically distinct from the Latin word for bad, although spelled the same in Latin.  We have many words like that in English: unionized and un-ionized for example. Viola (vy ola) the flower and viola (vee ola)  the fiddle.

The Y1K bug

One of my favorite authors, the learned and ingenious John Updike, inserted a little anachronistic vignette into his recent novel "Towards the End of Time".  The world would come to an end after the year 999 AD. because, it was said, the three digits of the the first millennium equaled the trinity, but could not exceed them.  This was offered as one of the explanations for the millennial madness. God would not let the odometer roll over from 999 to 1000, so the last trump would sound at midnight on New Year's eve of the year 999.

We all know now that the world did not end. Is it possible that we were allowed to take our run at at least one more millennium because the Hindu-Arabic number had not yet come into anything like general use, and would not for another 250 years?  The year changing from DCDLIX (or even DCCCCLXXXXVIIII) to M just doesn't have the same cachet.

Since Updike is close to omniscient, I choose to believe that he knew better, but was just toying with us.