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Grandpa vs. the Internet

Bill Meredith

"When I was 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished to find out how much the old man had learned in seven years."  Mark Twain

February, I have just discovered, is the month of love and romance. I learned this important bit of information the way I learn practically everything these days… by accident, when I was looking for something else. What I was looking for was information about Rudolph Jacob Camerarius. Why? Well, it's a long story.

My granddaughter called the other day with a question about her homework. I think my son prompted her to call; he might not have known the answer to the question, but he could have looked it up easily enough if he'd wanted to. I suspect he was simply using the occasion for her to interact with me in the role of teacher. The question dealt with botany; she wanted to know how the pollen of a flower makes the seed develop. I talked to her a bit to determine what she knew about it and then led her to the answer. She already knew the structure of the flower and that bees carry pollen from the stamens to the pistil, so it was simple enough to explain the transfer of a nucleus from the pollen to the egg through the pollen tube.

After we hung up, I got to thinking about kids and questions. As a pre-teenager, she hasn't yet reached the stage where her father knows nothing, but it did remind me of Mark Twain and the quotation cited above (I don't know if it also applies to grandfathers). I couldn't remember the ages in the quotation, I didn't know the context in which he said it; and I didn't have anything else to do at the time… so I decided to look it up.

I didn't have a book of quotations at hand, the library was half a mile away, and it was cold outside, so I decided to use the internet. It was easy enough to tell my computer to search for "Quotations," and then to stipulate "Mark Twain;" instantly there appeared on the screen before me a list of several hundred things he said. Further stipulating quotations using the word "father" narrowed the list down to a few dozen… so far, so good. But then I found that this specific quotation was different in each source on the list; some used different ages and expressions, and some used wording that didn't even sound like Mark Twain. After spending half an hour looking in other places in the net I came upon one that said scholars have never actually found that quotation in any of Twain's writings, and although it is widely attributed to him there is no proof that he really said it.

The quotation certainly sounds like something Twain would have said if the occasion had ever come up, so this came as a disappointment. But it really wasn't a surprise. I knew the internet is not infallible, but since I have not started using internet sources until recently, I was not aware of the extent of inaccuracies they contain. I mused about this for a while, and then my mind wandered back to my granddaughter's original question. Naturally, that reminded me of Rudolph Jacob Camerarius.

Naturally, you say? Well, the name, Camerarius, is not exactly a household word, even among biologists; in fact, I would wager a small sum that if you put a bunch of modern biologists in a bag and shook them up, you wouldn't find one in a dozen that would recognize him. I knew of him because sometime in the course of teaching botany for 40 years I came across the fact that in 1694 he discovered that flowers have to be pollinated in order to produce seeds… a discovery of such fundamental importance that we just assume everybody has known it forever. Thinking about it, I realized that I didn't know his dates or anything else about him, and since the internet was at hand I decided to look him up.

As before, when I finally found him I was presented with several hundred sources about him, and all of them disagreed about details. The first identified him as a Dutch botanist; the rest agreed that he was German. He was born, lived and died in the city of Tubingen, and spent his career at the University there. He was born in 1665 (by coincidence, that also was the year cells were discovered). As a young man, he studied medicine and became a physician. In those days doctors had to make many of their own medicines from plants, so they had to study Botany in Medical School; hence, it was natural that when he joined the University faculty he became Professor of Botany. Yet some of the sources claimed he was Professor of Physics, Natural Philosophy (the old name for Science), Zoology or Medicine.

Various dates in February were listed as Camerarius' birthday; the one I liked best was Feb.12, because Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin also share that day. For all I know, he could have been born on Valentine's Day; that would have been appropriate, since the discovery for which he is remembered is the reason we use "learning about the bees and flowers" as a metaphor for sex education. Whenever it was, the Internet won't settle the question. Most of the sources there got their information by copying what someone else had copied from someone else, rather than going to original documents. This will come as a shock to people who think anything that comes out of a computer has to be true... just as, in olden times when most people couldn't read and write, anything written in Latin had to be true.

But, I don't have time to worry about that… it just occurred to me to wonder why February is the month of love and romance. I had assumed it was because of Valentine's Day… but that's only an assumption. Maybe it's really because Camerarius was born in this month. Or, maybe it's just that in February it's too cold for anything else. I'll have to look it up.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith