American Language Traps

March 9, 2009

Apparently I embarassed my host this week. Old chum Martin Elvis, a regular on this blog, introduced me at the start of my colloquium at CfA, bringing out all sorts of biographical snippets. I thanked him for his fulsome introduction and everybody laughed awkwardly. Later Martin explained that although in the UK “fulsome” means “abundant and generous”, in the US it means “absurdly overdone”. Ooops.

The first time I went to the USA, experienced hands warned me of the language traps. “You will be puzzled”, they told me, “by the fact that you can see their pants, and that they wear their vests on top of their shirts.” More importantly, they explained, if I made a graphical error and wished to erase something, I must be most careful not to ask the secretary for a rubber. My intentions would be misunderstood.

This time around, my son got into trouble because he threw his textbook into the trash. Well the teacher said to put it in the bin, what was he supposed to do ?

Well.. I am sure there about eight thousand web page / blog entries discussing this kind of stuff, and I can’t even be bothered to look ’em up. But do feel free to chip in, and at least it does give me a chance to apologise to Martin.


Astro Blunders

February 9, 2009

Hmm. Seems Telescoper is assuming the mantle of dissecter of STFC politics. And as ever there are about eight hundred people quicker than me at feeding you the hot new piccies .  Better go for good ole astro-trivia….

In Bertie and the Aliens I told the story of a distinguished astronomer who didn’t know his constellations. This prompted an embarrassed confession by one “Perry Petia” caught out not knowing how to use his/her own Department’s telescope. I thought more of this sort of thing would be rather fun. So …. I would welcome entries in three categories :

(A) Personal confessions

(B) Blunders you have heard about, especially by well known astronomers

(C) Votes for best historical dead ends.

You may wish to post anonymously in this instance, and also may wish to protect the identity of the actors in Category B, as I did with Bertie. I leave this to your judgement. In Category B, well testified stories are best of course, but urban myths will do too as long as clearly marked as such.

I’ll kick off in reverse order.

(C) My favourite is the sad history of nebulium. For sixty years people thought the bright nebular emission lines came from a new element, but nobody could find it, after years of fruitless searching.

(B) I was once observing on the 24 inch on Mount Hopkins with John Huchra. We were manually moving the guider-TV around (ahh ! the good old days !) when the star disappeared in a kind of fat blank patch somewhere near the middle of the field. “What happened ?” says I. “Oh that.” says John. “Somebody I know kinda maybe pointed the guider at Jupiter. Hasn’t been the same since.”

(A) Not saying. Far too embarrassing. If a good stream gets going, will slip this in anonymously.

Right. Who’s up ?