Crunch, Crunch, Crunch, Crunch, Crunch,…

That’s the sound of me banging my head against a concrete wall to relieve the pain I suffered on reading the latest pearl of wisdom that world famous astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson imparted to his 1, 228, 112 adoring acolytes on Twitter.

Not that anybody asked, but the symbol “lb” for pound comes from an abbreviation of the constellation Libra, the scales. Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson)

This is the sort of comment, which if made by one of his students, my twitter friend @grummpyhistorian tweets with a hash tag such as #epicetymologicalfail.

The Latin word libra has two meanings it is both the Roman standard unit of weight (approx. 327g) as well as a balance or set of scales. It is the former that is the origin of the abbreviation lb for pound, the standard unit of weight in the imperial system, and the latter, which supplied the name of the constellation. It is of course also the former that is the origin of the £ symbol for the pound unit of money, originally a pound or libra of some precious metal. This, if my memory serves me correctly, however comes into English via the French word for pound, livre. Instead of lb we might have had pf as abbreviation for the pound from the German word Pfund.

As to the asterism it would appear that it was the Babylonian who first called it a balance as explained here by Ian Ridpath in his excellent book Star Tales:

Now there has been a lot of deriding and decrying of the humanities and their usefulness or lack there of in recent times but if Neil deGrasse Tyson had paid a little more attention to the humanities in his education he might not have put his foot straight into his mouth when he opened it. He could have saved me a lot of mental pain if he had a) learnt some Latin or b) read an etymological dictionary or c) consulted the much-maligned Wikipedia anyone of which would have prevented him from exposing himself as an ignoramus, a Latin term meaning, “we do not know”.


Filed under Myths of Science, Odds and Ends

4 responses to “AAARRRGGGHHHHH……

  1. Michael Weiss

    How do they know the metric equivalent of the ancient Roman unit so precisely?

  2. aaltair

    He generally doesn’t go for subtle distinctions like that. He’s also said salt NaCl is the thing humans eat that was not once alive. He misses baking soda (for one).
    I’m pretty sure he also gets a kick out of making people get mad and prove (or try to prove) him wrong.

  3. That’s how misconceptions enter popular science where approximate explanations abound…

  4. Pingback: Errors and expertise | True Anomalies

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