Professor Tait's adventure in the library

One of the virtues of a good library is the possibility of finding unexpected treasures in it — a possibility that is foreclosed if one has only computer-searchable indices available. Anyone who has had access to a good library knows this; and so it has been ever since libraries came into being.

One of the classic papers on mirage theory contains an example of this marvelous effect. The story related by Professor P. G. Tait, one of the giants of 19th-Century physics, is hidden near the end of an excessively mathematical and rather forbidding treatise buried in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh for 1883:

A few days ago, while finally preparing the above pages for the press, I had occasion once more to consult Wollaston's paper, and inadvertently took down the wrong volume of the Phil. Trans. In it (the vol. for 1803) I found another paper on Mirage by Wollaston, in which he speaks of certain articles by Woltmann and Gruber, and regrets his inability to read German. This led me to consult the Register-band of Gilbert's Annalen ; and I thus learned the existence of a very elaborate memoir by Biot which I had never seen referred to, and in which the subject of mirage is exhaustively treated both by calculation and by long series of exact measurements of the phenomena as seen by Mathieu and Biot at Dunkirk, and by Arago and Biot at Majorca….

Biot has considered the subject from a point of view somewhat similar to that which I had adopted, and anticipated of course the great majority of the more general results at which I had arrived. I was occasionally almost startled as I looked through his memoir, to find how closely (even in mode of stating them) I had reproduced some of his main ideas.

There is a lesson here for modern readers, I think.

© 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005 – 2009 Andrew T. Young

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