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Mega Culpa

by Rudy Baum
May 12, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 19

Mulliken (not Millikan)
Credit: Ken Richards/FSU News Bureau
with Kasha (not Pauling) at FSU (not Caltech) in 1966 (not the late 1940s or early 1950s).
Credit: Ken Richards/FSU News Bureau
with Kasha (not Pauling) at FSU (not Caltech) in 1966 (not the late 1940s or early 1950s).

I often emphasize to C&EN's staff that journalism is a profession that keeps you humble. When you are working at a breakneck pace and juggling several tasks at once, it is all too easy to make an embarrassing mistake. Or two.

I recently received a letter from Kirby W. Kemper, the vice president of research at Florida State University, which read in part:

"Several errors appeared in labeling a picture (pp. 60–61) in the April 7, 2008, issue of C&EN. The proper labeling is: 'The interview of Robert S. Mulliken ... on the occasion of the announcement of his being named the 1966 Nobel Laureate (Chemistry) in October 1966.' He is shown with Michael Kasha, who is introducing Mulliken, in his second year of his appointment as Distinguished Professor in Chemistry in the newly established Institute of Molecular Biophysics at Florida State University."

Referring to my editorial in the same issue, Kemper wrote: "Robert S. Mulliken (molecular chemical physicist) was never connected with Caltech. Robert A. Millikan (atomic physicist, famous for his e/m electron properties by the renowned oil-drop experiment) was, and it would appear that C&EN repeated an error made occasionally in confusing these two most esteemed scientists. Also, it is clear that Michael Kasha was renamed Linus Pauling in your presentation."

Kemper also noted that Kasha is in his 56th year at FSU, now in the position of distinguished university professor.

Whew! That's a sufficient number of errors to keep one humble for at least a few weeks. There is something rather fascinating about how this situation came to pass, however. The photo in question (shown on this page, with my tongue-in-cheek caption) came from the ACS library's photo archive. The back of the photo is stamped "FSU News Bureau Photo by Ken Richards" and it is logged into C&EN on 11/14/66. However, in careful handwriting there is also this: Robt. S. Mulliken (L), L. Pauling (R).

Something else you'll notice are the crop marks in red crayon. These suggest to me that the magazine printed a photo only of Mulliken, not Kasha. So there was no record in the magazine that this was a photo of Mulliken and Kasha. Sometime later, probably after caption material was separated from the photo, someone decided that Kasha was, in fact, Linus Pauling. There is a physical resemblance, but Pauling would have been 65 years old in 1966 so it is not clear to me how that error was introduced.

We discuss events like this when they occur, trying to figure out how to prevent them. Ivan Amato, C&EN's managing editor, noted that, when writing historical articles, you cannot take notations of provenance on old photographs for granted, as several of us did in this instance.

A day later, Amato wrote in an e-mail: "As I was thinking about the tragicomedy of errors that was brought to our attention in the Priestley issue, I was reminded of the thousands and thousands of decisions and facts and details that go into every issue. I would venture to say that no journalistic product as large and ambitious as ours can expect to be error-free, strive as they might. That's why every issue has a white-knuckle aspect to it as we send it off to be read and scrutinized by some of science's smartest and most learned participants. I am grateful that we are kept honest by them, and that they are our readers, but moments like this inspire me/us to redouble our commitment to minimize the occasions on which that corrective function needs to kick in."

Amen. And thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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