Having sounded off the other week about what scientists ought to be doing , I thought I would flag these three things, which are linked by me recently finding out that things that I’d long believed were not, in fact, true, or at least not as I remembered them being stated.
- Absinthe is not a liqueur, as is erroneously believed by some, but a spirit. Like a certain fizzy drink, it was commercialised on the basis of its reputed medical properties. The two drinks are not actually that similar really, and certainly not in terms of pedigree. Absinthe (le feé vert) has much more ancient roots, but for most of the 20th Century was illegal almost the world over because it was believed that the critical ingredient, wormwood, was a psychotropic drug. It probably didn’t help the drink’s reputation that it was popular with the bohemians, who embraced its (ani)seedy reputation. In that respect it was on a par with gin (mother’s ruin) in the 17th and early 18th Centuries in the UK. In practice, as with many such products, the problem came with it’s popularity. Demand for absinthe outstripped production by the reputable distilleries and so in stepped the less reputable producers… Soon, the dubious, cheap versions were bing sold in incredible volumes. Some of these really were poisonous and caused halucinations. Modern food and drink legislation has removed much of this stigma. Wormwood is indeed the source of a psychotropic drug, thujone, but the quantity that makes it into the (properly) distilled liqueur is negligible. So what I learned was that absinthe is once again on the open shelves, includes wormwood, and that it has (probably) been much maligned.
- One of my favourite quotes about democracy, after the one about it being the worst form of government*, is the one that goes “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. I had always believed this to be from Voltaire, but I recently discovered that it was said about him, by one of his biographers, not by him. Confusion arose because of the way that Evelyn Hall described Voltaire’s character and beliefs at a particular point in his life, but she did so a paragraph or so after presenting a direct quote. Either way, it is a sentiment that is worth keeping to.
- There is a rumour that Einstein was bad at maths, certainly when he was a child, but he seemed to pick enough up later to do some reasonably good work. When I mentioned this in conversation with some friends the other day, I got some odd looks, not to mention some pointed comments (no, I had not been on the absinthe). They had not heard this particular rumour, but I can distinctly remember one of Bill Waterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strips where Calvin, whilst trying to express the evidence of his genous, says to Suzy “you know how Einstein got bad grades? Well mine are worse!”. I promise that I do not spend all my time browsing the net(!) but I came across a news item the other day that debunked this. Apparently, in the way that some organisations do, Einstein’s school completely reversed the meaning of their 1-6 grading system. Einstein consistently had the best marks possible, but a look at the transcripts without understanding the contex might lead you to think that he had suddenly got very bad at maths. This seemingly spectacular failure might also have been conflated with his career at university, where he was the classic example of a disaffect student – he was interested in everything except the syllabus. He was the only one of his class mates not to secure an academic position on graduation.
*Amply justified by recent events, although I still wouldn’t want to try any of the others.