Monday, November 21, 2005

Unfortunate moments in the history of science

From Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, London, to Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Delft, Holland, 20th of October, 1676:

Dear Mr. Antony van Leeuwenhoek,
Your letter of October 10th has been received here with amusement. Your account of myriad "little animals" seen swimming in rainwater, with the aid of a so-called "microscope," caused the members of this society considerable merriment when read at our recent meeting. Your novel descriptions of the sundry anatomies and occupations of these invisible creatures led one member to imagine that your "rainwater" might have contained an ample portion of distilled spirits -- imbibed by the investigator. Another member raised a glass of clear water and exclaimed, "Behold, the Africk of Leeuwenhoek." For myself, I withhold judgment as to the sobriety of your observations and the veracity of your instrument. A vote having being taken among the members, it has been decided not to publish your communication in the Proceedings of this esteemed society. However, all here wish your "little animals" health, prodigality, and good husbandry by their ingenious "discoverer."

Cyrill Franz Napp, abbot of the Monastery of St. Thomas, Altbrunn, Moravia, to Father Gregor Mendel, June 15, 1859:

Dear Brother in Christ,
On Wednesday of this past week I had tea with His Excellency the Bishop. During the course of our conversation, he inquired about rumors that have come to his ear regarding certain experimental investigations by one of the brothers of our monastery. He was referring, of course, to your inquiries into of the procreative habits of peas. I assured him that your efforts were in earnest, and that you had discerned intriguing mathematical patterns among the inherited characteristics of your plants. The Bishop suppressed a snigger as I described your pea-geneologies, which he thought more exquisitely contrived than the family tree of the Emperor himself. He asked if I thought it seemly for a man of your intellectual attainments to be plodding in a pea patch, prying into the germinal proclivities of peas. He suggested that pea propagation was a subject less worthy of your curiosity than, say, the writings of the Church Fathers or the Doctrine of Grace. My dear Brother Mendel, as sympathetic as I am to your researches, we can ill afford to have the monastery made a laughingstock. I have therefore issued instructions that your pea patch be plowed and replanted with potatoes.

The Editor of the Annalen der Physik, to Albert Einstein, September 25, 1905:

Dear Herr Einstein,
I am in receipt of your paper submitted to this journal for publication, on a so-called "relativistic" explanation of the laws of electrodynamics. The editorial staff of the Annalen der Physik are in agreement that the paper represents an ingenious parody of contemporary physics, and send you hearty congratulations for having concocted so elegant a spoof. What makes the paper so terribly clever is its apparent ordinariness, but of course, the perceptive reader will recognize that your theses are at odds with everything in physics from Newton to the present. Once we discerned the joke, we had a rollicking good laugh. We are herewith returning your amusing contribution, and thank you for the entertainment.