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Posts Tagged ‘fibrin

Oops…

 

In 1870, a German chemist made a single, simple error in transcribing his data on how much iron was in spinach… and provided an object lesson in the spread and persistence of erroneous information in society:

One of the strangest examples of the spread of error is related to Popeye the Sailor. Popeye, with his odd accent and improbable forearms, used spinach to great effect, a sort of anti-Kryptonite. It gave him his strength, and perhaps his distinctive speaking style. But why did Popeye eat so much spinach? What was the reason for his obsession with such a strange food?

The truth begins more than fifty years earlier. Back in 1870, Erich von Wolf, a German chemist, examined the amount of iron within spinach, among many other green vegetables. In recording his findings, von Wolf accidentally misplaced a decimal point when transcribing data from his notebook, changing the iron content in spinach by an order of magnitude. While there are actually only 3.5 milligrams of iron in a 100-gram serving of spinach, the accepted fact became 35 milligrams. To put this in perspective, if the calcu­lation were correct each 100-gram serving would be like eating a small piece of a paper clip.

Once this incorrect number was printed, spinach’s nutritional value became legendary. So when Popeye was created, studio ex­ecutives recommended he eat spinach for his strength, due to its vaunted health properties. Apparently Popeye helped increase American consumption of spinach by a third!

This error was eventually corrected in 1937, when someone rechecked the numbers. But the damage had been done. It spread and spread, and only recently has gone by the wayside, no doubt helped by Popeye’s relative obscurity today. But the error was so widespread that the British Medical Journal published an article discussing this spinach incident in 1981, trying its best to finally debunk the issue.

Ultimately, the reason these [types of] errors spread is because it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds cor­rect, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact.

From Samuel Arbesman’s The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.

[TotH to the wonderful Delancey Place— from which, the image above]

And lest we think that this kind of mistake has faded into the past, it turns out that the academic research that underpins Paul Ryan’s budget (and the agressive austerity approach that it embodies) contains a simple arithmetic error (not to mention a serious structural flaw)… one that, when corrected, suggests that deficits are not, after all, necessarily an impediment to economic growth and health.

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As we eat our spinach anyway, we might spare a thought for Gerardus Johannes Mulder; he died on this date in 1880.  An accomplished organic and analytic chemist, Mulder was the first to use use the word “protein” (drawing on work by Berzelius), the first to propose that animals acquired protein by ingestion (of plants, Mulder suggested), and the first to identify “fibrin,” the clotting protein in blood.  (Mulder had an impact in the Plant Kingdom as well:  he was first to analyze phytol correctly during research on chlorophyll, and confirmed that theine and caffein were the same compound.)

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Written by LW

April 18, 2013 at 1:01 am

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