Monday, August 6, 2007

Theresa Duncan and the history of electricity

In David Segal's Washington Post article referenced below, he describes Duncan's blog as "bouncing from lowbrow to high, from Kate Moss to Franz Kafka, from film to the history of electricity."

Ah the history of electricity. Nothing does more to solidify ones intellectual bona fides than to write about an esoteric subject. (Say like “Electric Fairy Tales: CD-ROMs and Literature"—but nevermind; we'll come back to that one another day.)

Let's examine the posts that The Wit filed under "the history of electricity" label. There are six posts total on this subject. Two of them are throwaways: one is really just a photo, the other is a supposed letter from a fan. That leaves just four posts on electricity. (Shocking, isn't it?) Only four posts, yet they merited mention in Segal's story. I wonder if he had the chance to read them. Have you? Oh, you must! I insist on it.

Here's Duncan, eloquently writing on lightning, mushrooms and omens.

Ancient Romans saw Jove's thunderbolts as a sign of condemnation and denied burial rites to those killed by lightning. Andeans hold similar beliefs and may ostracize the victim. In some cultures, medicines are made from stones that are believed to be a result of lightning strike. Roman, Hindu, and Mayan cultures all have myths that mushrooms arise from spots where lightning has hit the ground


Now here, curiously, is a meteorological website on the same topic:

Ancient Romans saw Jove's thunderbolts as a sign of condemnation and denied burial rites to those killed by lightning. Some cultures have made medicines from stones struck by lightning., Roman, Hindu and Mayan cultures all held the belief that mushrooms arise from spots where lightning has hit the ground.


On Benjamin Franklin, Duncan writes:

In 1750 Benjamin Franklin published a proposal for an experiment to prove that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a storm that appeared capable of becoming a lightning storm. On May 10, 1752, Thomas Francois d'Alibard of France conducted Franklin's experiment (using a 40-foot-tall iron rod instead of a kite) and extracted electrical sparks from a cloud. On June 15, Franklin conducted his famous kite experiment and also successfully extracted sparks from a cloud, unaware that d'Alibard had already done so, 36 days earlier. Others, such as Prof. Georg Wilhelm Richmann of St. Petersburg, Russia, were spectacularly electrocuted during the months following Franklin's experiment.
Franklin, in his writings, displays that he was aware of the dangers and offered alternative ways to demonstrate that lightning was electrical, as shown by his invention of the lightning rod, an application of the use of electrical ground. If Franklin did perform this experiment, he did not do it in the way that is often described, as it would have been dramatic but fatal. Instead he used the kite to collect some electric charge from a storm cloud, which implied that lightning was electrical.



On Benjamin Franklin, wikipedia noted (on August 5, 2007):

In 1750, he published a proposal for an experiment to prove that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a storm that appeared capable of becoming a lightning storm. On May 10, 1752, Thomas-Fran├žois Dalibard of France conducted Franklin's experiment (using a 40-foot-tall iron rod instead of a kite) and extracted electrical sparks from a cloud. On June 15, Franklin may have possibly conducted his famous kite experiment in Philadelphia and also successfully extracted sparks from a cloud, although there are theories that suggest he never performed the experiment . Franklin's experiment was not written up until Joseph Priestley's 1767 History and Present Status of Electricity; the evidence shows that Franklin was insulated (not in a conducting path, since he would have been in danger of electrocution in the event of a lightning strike). (Others, such as Prof. Georg Wilhelm Richmann of St. Petersburg, Russia, were electrocuted during the months following Franklin's experiment.) In his writings, Franklin indicates that he was aware of the dangers and offered alternative ways to demonstrate that lightning was electrical, as shown by his use of the concept of electrical ground. If Franklin did perform this experiment, he did not do it in the way that is often described, flying the kite and waiting to be struck by lightning, (as it would have been dramatic but fatal[17]). Instead he used the kite to collect some electric charge from a storm cloud, which implied that lightning was electrical.

Now, Duncanologists are smart enough to realize that wikipedia entries can be easily changed and updated. A prankster could very well have copied The Wit's brilliant post entry onto ole Benji's wikipedia page or that Duncan herself could have written it. (And btw, when is that next Lunar Society meeting? For some reason, I didn't get the evite this month.)

On Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (the guy credited with inventing the X-ray), Duncan writes:

On 8 November 1895, German physics professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845-1923) worked in his darkened Wurzburg laboratory. His experiments focused on light phenomena and other emissions generated by discharging electrical current in highly-evacuated glass tubes. These tubes, known generically as "Crookes tubes," after the British investigator William Crookes (1832-1919), were widely available. Roentgen was interested in cathode rays and in assessing their range outside of charged tubes.
To Roentgen's surprise, he noted that when his cardboard-shrouded tube was charged, an object across the room began to glow. This proved to be a barium platinocyanide-coated screen too far away to be reacting to the cathode rays as he understood them. We know little about the sequence of his work over the next few days, except that while holding materials between the tube and screen to test the new rays, he saw the bones of his hand clearly displayed in an outline of flesh.

It is impossible for observers accustomed to modern imaging to gauge the mixture of wonder and disbelief Roentgen must have felt that day. When he immobilised for some moments the hand of his wife in the path of the rays over a photographic plate, he observed after development of the plate an image of his wife's hand which showed the shadows thrown by the bones of her hand and that of a ring she was wearing, surrounded by the penumbra of the flesh, which was more permeable to the rays and therefore threw a fainter shadow.
On 28 December 1895 Roentgen gave his preliminary report "Uber eine neue Art von Strahlen" to the president of the Wurzburg Physical-Medical Society, accompanied by experimental radiographs and by the image of his wife's hand. By New Year's Day he had sent the printed report to physicist friends across Europe. January saw the world gripped by "X-ray mania," and Roentgen acclaimed as the discoverer of a medical miracle. Roentgen won the first Nobel prize in physics in 1901.
From the website of soysee, makers of X-ray products

In 8 November 1895, German physics professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845-1923) worked in his darkened Wurzburg laboratory. His experiments focused on light phenomena and other emissions generated by discharging electrical current in highly-evacuated glass tubes. These tubes, known generically as “Crookes tubes,” after the British investigator William Crookes (1832-1919), were widely available. Roentgen was interested in cathode rays and in assessing their range outside of charged tubes.

To Roentgen’s surprise, he noted that when his cardboard-shrouded tube was charged, an object across the room began to glow. This proved to be a barium platinocyanide-coated screen too far away to be reacting to the cathode rays as he understood them. We know little about the sequence of his work over the next few days, except that while holding materials between the tube and screen to test the new rays, he saw the bones of his hand clearly displayed in an outline of flesh. It is impossible for observers accustomed to modern imaging to gauge the mixture of wonder and disbelief Roentgen must have felt that day. He plunged into seven weeks of meticulously planned and executed experiments to determine the nature of the rays. He worked in isolation, telling a friend simply, “I have discovered something interesting, but I do not know whether or not my observations are correct.” In fact, one wonders if Roentgen’s experiments were as much to convince himself of the reality of his observations as to enhance the scientific data supporting the phenomenon.

On 28 December 1895 Roentgen gave his preliminary report “Uber eine neue Art von Strahlen” to the president of the Wurzburg Physical-Medical Society, accompanied by experimental radiographs and by the image of his wife’s hand. By New Year’s Day he had sent the printed report to physicist friends across Europe. January saw the world gripped by “X-ray mania,” and Roentgen acclaimed as the discoverer of a medical miracle. Roentgen, who won the first Nobel prize in physics in 1901, declined to seek patents or proprietary claims on the X-rays, even eschewing eponymous descriptions of his discovery and its applications.

Note that while there is a striking resemblance between Duncan's writing and the work of others, these are not exact replicas! It is quite possible for two writers to come up with very similar 100-word paragraphs at the same time. And, of course, it's possible that Duncan lent her considerable talents to other websites, perhaps moonlighting as a copy writer for an Xray equipment company and such.

2 comments:

poussin said...

I always wondered if that that perfume article was that only thing Duncan plagiarized. And from an editor's comment at Slate,made to Kate Coe, the first submitted draft had, gee whiz!, "even more problems."

But as Duncan pointed out, the whole topic of plagiarism was oh so very OF THE MOMENT.

As is this blog.

Gary said...

this blog would never exist if she was alive. I do believe that Theresa would have bitch-slapped the blogger in public.