”Whoever undertakes to set himself up as judge in the field of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods.” – Albert Einstein
The New York Times is a respected paper. Some might even call it a beacon of journalism, but that doesn’t mean it’s unquestioningly right 100% of the time. Back in 1851 the Times published one of it’s most memorable errors. Errors will be errors but this one is special not only because of how wrong it was but because of the tone the original author took.
On Jan. 13, 1920 the NY Times published an editorial about how rockets could not fly in space. The NYT opinion writer took to task one Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer. The writer gleefully mocked Goddard as lacking even a basic high school education, here’s the actual quote:
”That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
A correction was issued by the paper on July 17, 1969 just a day after the Apollo 11 launch to the moon. This correction surprisingly contains no reference whatsoever to this launch.
A Correction: On Jan. 13, 1920, “Topics of the Times,” an editorial-page feature of The New York Times, dismissed the notion that a rocket could function in a vacuum and commented on the ideas of Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, as follows:
‘That Professor Goddard with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to something better than a vacuum against which to react—to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.
Given the way journalism is today the Times gets bonus points for issuing this retraction even though it was a full 49 years later. Being able to admit when you’re wrong and correct those errors is an incredibly important part of journalism… one that doesn’t seem to really exist in the new millennium.