Physicist demonstrates dictionary definition was dodgy

It is the defining moment that demonstrates a QUT physicist was correct in pointing out a 99-year-old mistake to one of the world’s most authoritative dictionaries. QUT Senior Lecturer in Physics, Dr Stephen Hughes, sparked controversy over how a humble siphon worked when he noticed an incorrect definition in the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary.

In 2010, eagle-eyed Dr Hughes spotted the mistake, which went unnoticed for 99 years, which incorrectly described atmospheric pressure, rather than gravity, as the operating force in a siphon. Dr Hughes demonstrated the science of siphons in a paper published yesterday in Nature Publishing Group journal Scientific Reports.

The Oxford English Dictionary corrected the error and removed the reference to atmospheric pressure after Dr Hughes pointed it out. However, he said the new entry “unfortunately remains ambiguous”.

“This definition still leaves the question open as to how a siphon actually works,” Dr Hughes said. “But at least the reference to atmospheric pressure has been removed. The vast majority of dictionaries of all languages still incorrectly assert that siphons work through atmospheric pressure and not gravity. “I hope these findings are a useful contribution to the debate about how siphons work and will enable people to make more effective use of them.” Edited from Physicist demonstrates dictionary definition was dodgy.

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3 Responses to Physicist demonstrates dictionary definition was dodgy

  1. Tim Nelson says:

    I haven’t seen the Oxford Dictionary entry on this topic. I just wanted to add a comment to say that while it is true that gravity provides the motive force, atmospheric pressure is required to enable the fluid to rise above the level of the source. On the surface of the Moon, for example, one could not siphon a liquid.

    • Deskarati says:

      A very good point Tim. Seems as if the definition should mention that, but I suppose it’s not a dictionaries function to explain all the possible scenarios, best left to encyclopaedias or here on Deskarati.

  2. Phil Krause says:

    Also liquids tend not to exist where there is no atmospheric pressure. They tend to boil away into a gas as there is no pressure to hold the molecules together. I think the point Dr Hughes was making is that the pressure is not the active force. Nothing much would change if the pressure was increased whereas it would if the gravity was increased.

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