Saturday, July 30, 2005

Thomson and Parkinson

In the op-ed that we saw in the previous post, Jayant Narlikar recounts this interesting incident:

... In the middle of the 19th century, two clever students, Parkinson and Thomson, were competing for the Cambridge Tripos examination. When the results were out, Parkinson stood first and Thomson second. Both stood way above the rest of the pack. They were the only two to have solved a very difficult question. The examiner of the paper, however, was intrigued to find that both had solved the question in the same way. Did one copy the other?

He called Parkinson to find out how he arrived at the solution. Parkinson explained that he made it a practice to go beyond the syllabi and texts to read research journals and he had encountered the question in a research paper whose author was anonymous. The examiner, who had taken the question from the very same source, complimented Parkinson on his preparation and interviewed Thomson. Thomson said: "I wrote that paper". Thomson later went on to be a famous physicist and is better known as Lord Kelvin.

Update: Interestingly, I found this Brad DeLong post from two days ago that has a nice excerpt from some old stuff on Wired in which Thomson is featured prominently. This time, the story is about the deep sea cables. If you are short of time, read the excerpted part in DeLong's post!