Any one who has tried to take out petrol from a drum into the fuel tank using a small rubber pipe would have used the concept of “siphon“. So what makes it work? What makes the liquid from from one end to another?
In 1911, the OED wrote “force of atmospheric pressure“. But in the real world, the atmospheric pressure between one end of the pipe and the other doesn’t really change much. The difference is virtually zero. The liquid flows due to gravity. Common sense. But for almost 100 years, OED has been quoting atmospheric pressure.
According to the Guardian article, it came to light.
Dr Hughes stumbled on the error after seeing an enormous siphon at work in South Australia transferring the equivalent of 4,000 Olympic swimming pools from the Murray river into Lake Bonney. Dr Hughes says the siphon transferred 10 billion litres of water over two months without a pump.
Inspired by this feat, he decided to write an article about the phyics of siphoning for use by science teachers, only to discover that every dictionary he consulted claimed it was atmospheric pressure, not gravity, that pushed liquid through a siphon tube.
“An extensive check of online and offline dictionaries did not reveal a single dictionary that correctly referred to gravity being the operative force in a siphon,” Dr Hughes said.
Dr Hughes published his paper which he sent to the OED. To their credit, OED did publish a correct entry in their 2005 edition and using Dr Hughes’ work they will further revise the entire dictionary text.
But other dictionaries of the world remain, English and others. And not to forget thousands of other scientific words and terms that may have been erroneously defined. Because as the OED person said,
“The OED entry for siphon dates from 1911 and was written by editors who were not scientists … Our files suggest that no one has queried the definition before
So maybe we should start a project going through all the scientific terms and words and testing their definitions.