Earlier in this blog I’ve addressed some great understatements in the history of science and technology. For example:
--the Wright brothers’ telegram to their father on the successful flight at Kitty Hawk, telling him to “inform Press” [sic], and misspelling Orville (“Orvelle”)
--the announcement of the invention of the telephone, giving Mr. Bell a scant 200-word mention in the London-based journal Nature.
--the alpha and omega element of the severe understatement of George Gamow on discovering the background radiation of the Big Bang.
--and the atomic bomb/nuclear Armageddon bit from the National Emergency Planning Council: ( “Because of recent changes in the technology and potential tempo of war and because of the base power of force is in being (including equipment and supplies), there is general recognition that any future war in which the United States is engaged, especially if it is an unlimited nuclear war, may be decided without significant additional military demands upon the nation’s industrial economy.” Hmm. He continues: “That is not to say, however, that the post-attack economy would not face enormous logistical support problems.” There is no human element of this equation. “The logistic requirements of survival and recovery would present very heavy demands.”)
It is rare to see such terrific understatement concerning some of the scientific worthies, but this one (below) found in a penetrating, interesting and very entertaining work Devices of Wonder (2001) is really pretty remarkable. The book illustrates an exhibition co-curated by Barbara Stafford (Chicago), and the passage comes in a part of the book by Frances Terpak. I hate to take someone to task like this, particularly having written such a fine book, and further hate to drag anyone over coals that at all times wait for me, but Terpak' description of Newton's accomplishments as "innovations" (page 194) goes far beyond the line. Within two sentences she does discuss Newton's "monumental" stature and "great experiments", but alas the cat is out of the bag. If Newton's Opticks and Principia and et cetera are "innovations", then virtually nothing else is; everything else being at least not-innovations, identifying a world of sameness. I know that this is a simple editorial oversight, but it is a big one, at least in my head, and does fit perfectly (even if by mistake) into the blog's "great understatements" topology.