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Poor Writing Memorialized in Bronze

Dartmo.com, a blog that posts on the College’s buildings and their design, reports that a new plaque has been attached to the wall of Wilder Laboratory. Writer Scott Meacham ‘95 strongly criticizes the quality of the memorial’s syntax and punctuation. He’s right. Such writing would have gotten the author’s (committee of authors’?) knuckles rapped in a more rigorous time.

Physics Plaque.jpg

At this site, the Wilder Physical Laboratory, Dartmouth College, from 1900 to 1903 E.F. Nichols and G.F. Hull performed the first precise measurement of the radiation pressure of light on a macroscopic body, as predicted by J.C. Maxwell in 1873. The Nichols-Hull experiment provided convincing evidence for the pressure of light, and the transfer of momentum between light and matter, a phenomenon which has enabled critical developments in a wide range of fields from atomic physics to biology to astrophysics.
HISTORIC PHYSICS SITE, REGISTER OF HISTORIC SITES

AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY

Pretty grim prose, don’t you think? Actually, it’s pretty grim thinking. And embarrassing to boot. See Dartmo’s textual analysis for yourself.

As we noted the other day, fifth-grade errors aplenty are to be found in official College communications — the most egregious example being the two recent Presidential Leadership Statements.

Addendum: Dartmo’s Scott Meacham has always seemed to me to be an “our administration can do no wrong” kind of guy. However, I guess that there are some things that even a loyalist cannot stomach.

Addendum: I omitted to note that Dartmo.com first noted the international rankings to which we referred on Wednesday.

Addendum: An alumnus with a deeper knowledge of science than my own writes in to comment on the plaque’s substance as well as its form:

Regarding your blog entry — ‘Poor Writing Memorialized in Bronze’ — it really is very bad prose, but the authors of Dartmo don’t pinpoint what seem to me its two worst faults. (I send this to you rather than to them, since their ‘Response’ window requires a password.) First, a layman can’t see what Maxwell predicted. Did he predict the experiment? Or the fact that light exerts pressure? Or the fact that such pressure can be precisely measured? Or the exact measurements? Or all four things? (No doubt a scientist would know, but the plaque shouldn’t be just for scientists.) Second, one can’t see what “a phenomenon” refers to. As Dartmo’s writers point out, one doesn’t know whether “the pressure of light and the transfer of momentum” are one phenomenon or two — but the problem is not (as they seem to think) merely one of punctuation!

At a Dartmouth web page, one seems to get an answer to the first question. There, too, the prose is bad (perhaps written by the same semi-literate scientist?):

The published papers [Nichols, E. F., and Hull, G. F., A preliminary communication on the pressure of heat and light radiation, Phys. Rev. 13, 307 (1901); The Pressure Due to Radiation. (Second Paper.), Phys. Rev. 17, 26 (1903)] reveal the incredible experimental acumen of Nichols and Hull. The final results agreed with Maxwell’s theory to better than one percent.

That’s execrably written! — but it “seems” to mean that Maxwell did, indeed, almost exactly predict the pressure.

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