Thursday, December 22, 2005

who's who????

Christopher Reed used humor to enliven his obit for Rutherford Aris, which was printed in the Dec. 21 edition of the Guardian of London.

Aris, a world-renowned mathematical theorist in chemical engineering, a scholarly palaeographist and skilled calligrapher, was famous enough to be listed in the first volume of Who's Who. But for Volume 2, Rutherford Aris received a letter from the publishers requesting a biography of Aris Rutherford.

Although Rutherford Aris replied, explaining that they had flip-flopped his first and last names, the editors apparently kept sending requests to Aris Rutherford.

So, the chemial engineering professor complied. Rutherford Aris, who did scientific research on chemical fluids, composed a tongue-in-cheek Who's-Who entry for Aris Rutherford, professor of Scotch - the liquid variety. It was printed in the second volume of the book of notable people.

Chris writes that the highly-spirited make-believe professor's degree in distillation engineering concentrated on another kind of fluid he had become steeped in at the Strathspey and Glenlivet Institute, where liquid output was more usually measured in wee drams. . . Aris MacPherson Rutherford contented himself with basic works, Sampling Techniques (1957), and Distillation Procedures (1963), which presumably fascinated fellow members at the Distillation Club of Edinburgh.

Commenting on his own work, Chris says it's "an example of how one funny thing someone did makes the piece. Some may demur (and I welcome their remarks) that the great man's achievements were therefore belittled. I take the alternative view, that only because of his humour did he make a general-interest newspaper that might not otherwise have run his obit at all."

This also is an example of the reliability of the information in Who's Who. Because the biographies are presumably provided by the famous folks themselves, we tend to accept them as fact. But even the rich and famous may inflate their list of accomplishments, education, military service, etc., or insert some private joke - like membership in an unusually named organization that doesn't exist.

It's like information gleaned from Internet searches or stuff you read in the newspaper. It's not necessarily true.

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