In my previous incarnation as a freelance book editor, I worked on hundreds of science and philosophy titles for Longman and Routledge. Many of these were second or third editions requiring a complete re-edit because the author had rewritten large segments of the book. When this happened, I was provided with a copy of an earlier edition for reference.
I mention this because I frequently found gross factual errors that had escaped the notice of the editor of the earlier edition. In a book on environmental science, for example, the author had written that 15 degrees of longitude is equivalent to five minutes instead of one hour. I discovered many mistakes like this, but I’ve forgotten almost all of them now.
However, two do still stick in my memory. In the fourth edition of a general science textbook that I was proofreading (I did that too), I came across the following sentence, which had appeared in all previous editions:
One is reminded of the psalm: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”Aargh! It may seem pedantic to some to insist on correcting this in a science textbook, especially at proof stage, when this type of correction will cost the publisher money, but it is from Ecclesiastes, for heaven’s sake!
But if you think that was bad, I came across a real howler while editing the third edition of An Introduction to Global Environmental Issues, a standard textbook for second- and third-year university students of environmental science that is the size of a typical telephone directory. I’m bound to say that the glossary in the third edition contains an incorrect definition of chaos theory, but I disclaim all responsibility: I was unable to convince the author that he was wrong. The book also has a chapter on the effect of volcanic eruptions on climate, which inter alia includes an account of how the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 had fired so much volcanic ash into the stratosphere that it had affected sunsets around the world for several years thereafter. The account concluded with this sentence, which appeared as written here in both the first and second editions:
This was captured by John Turner in his paintings of the period.If you think you know what is wrong with this sentence, do leave a comment. My reaction was to delete it completely, which in retrospect may also have been a mistake.