Friday, December 02, 2011

The Ongoing Copy Editor Crisis

The quality of publications continues to decline. Lately I've been reading a book by Marq De Villiers (author of Water, which I've also read) titled The End: Natural Disasters, Manmade Catastrophes, and the Future of Human Survival. Fun stuff, of course.

It's been a fascinating read, but I'm concerned about some of the errors I've found. I expect to find occasional misspellings or even missing words, but these go far beyond. Early on, he writes about Eratosthenes calculating the circumference of the Earth:
His notion, that the circumference of the Earth was twenty four miles, is a mere fifty miles off the modern best estimates.
Wow! How did an editor miss this? There are multiple clues that something is wrong here. First of all, 24 miles is obviously a laughably short distance, less than a marathon race. And if that were indeed the Earth's circumference, what would be so impressive about it being off by "a mere fifty miles"? Setting aside any controversy about just how accurate Eratosthenes was (though he certainly came pretty close given the resources at his disposal, which was the author's point, he may not have been that close), how could anyone confuse 24 with 24 thousand?

Later there is a similar error. De Villiers writes about the 2004 tsunami that originated near Indonesia and how the sea level change was measured as far away as Halifax, Nova Scotia. On the next page, he refers back to this:
Tsunamis may start locally, but they don't always stay local -- see the 20-inch wavelet in Halifax, which seems to have traveled 1,500 miles to get there.
Considering that it's roughly twice that distance just across the United States that number is clearly wrong. Without measuring it, I will assume that the author meant 15,000 miles, not 1,500.

I've come up with one possible reason for the errors detailed above. I am thinking perhaps the author wrote using metric units, and somebody messed up making the conversions for the American edition.

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