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List of scientific howlers in literature

A howler is a glaring blunder, usually in an academic examination; a scientific howler is a howler which shows the author to be either ignorant of some aspect of science, or to be a poor observer of the natural world (or, frequently, both). Many works of literature contain scientific howlers. Although these are typically unimportant in a literary sense, many people enjoy finding and discussing the misconceptions that the author reveals.

It might be argued that science fiction contains more scientific howlers than any other genre (such as faster than light travel, time travel, teleporting, and so on, which contradict known laws of physics). However, it might be reasonable to forgive these authors such lapses, because one point of sci-fi (especially soft science fiction) is to ponder the impact of actual or imagined science upon society and individuals.

"... Til clomb above the eastern bar
The horned Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip."
The Moon obscures objects behind it (whether or not the relevant part of the Moon is illuminated by the sun) so no star could appear inside the crescent.
  • In Lord of the Flies by William Golding. One child uses the spectacles of a myopic boy to light a fire. However, myopia requires a concave lens for its correction, while fire lighting would require a convex lens to concentrate sunlight.
  • Jack London's short story, The Shadow and the Flash , concerns the bitter rivalry of two brothers who devise methods of achieving personal invisibility. One method is based on the assumption that a perfectly black object reflects no light and is "therefore" invisible, apart from casting a shadow. The other is based on the assumption that a perfectly transparent object is invisible, apart from creating rainbow-colored flashes of light.
  • In Jules Verne's novel Autour de la Lune (second book of "From the Earth to the Moon and a Trip Around It"), Chapter VIII, "The Neutral Point," describes how gravity experienced by the travellers gradually diminishes until the spacecraft reaches the "neutral point" where "the respective attractions" of the Earth and the Moon "may be entirely annihilated by mutual counteraction." According to Verne, this point is "situated at 9/10 of the total distance or ... 216,000 miles from the earth." Only at this point would weightlessness be experienced. Verne did not understand the nature of weight or free-fall.
  • In John P. Marquand's novel, Wickford Point , chapter XXXIII, the narrator says: "Once the entire road had been sandy, and I can remember looking down from the buggy seat to watch the fine sand carried along the thin rims of the wheels by centrifugal force until it dropped back perpendicularly into the dust again."

See also

  • List of scientific howlers in film
  • List of scientific howlers in painting
  • List of famous scientific mistakes
Last updated: 03-05-2005 21:11:37